This is a much longer and more detailed version of Andrew Reeves’ article on the Ring of Fire which was originally published in the May/June 2014 issue of This Magazine. http://this.org/magazine/2014/06/09/our-home-and-golden-land/?utm_source=thismag&utm_medium=header&utm_campaign=skybar
The on-line version is roughly 6400 words versus the original 3500 words in the print edition of the magazine. This detailed account will be of interest to many and special thanks to journalist Andrew Reeves and This Magazine for giving RepublicOfMining.com permission to post the extended version.
Please note, “Our home and golden land” was written between February and March 2014 and would not reflect the many new issues that affect the continiously evolving story about the Ring of Fire.
OUR HOME AND GOLDEN LAND
“The North is not a quiet place.” Linda Kamerman, Ontario’s Mining and Lands Commissioner Linda Kamerman used that statement to open her September 2013 report on a turf war between rival companies over access rights to a remote crescent of minerals, tucked in the province’s far north where few but local Aboriginals could say they knew where they were. The report sparked yet another round of sabre-rattling and political hand-wringing, the latest in what a labyrinth of competing claims, high-level negotiations and First Nations assurances the project would move forward on their timetable or it wouldn’t.
This is Ontario’s Ring of Fire, an as-yet undeveloped cluster of mining stakes held by 25 combinations of claim holders independently or in partnership. At its best, the Ring is a $60 billion, multi-generational opportunity for provincial, federal and First Nations governments to reap mineral riches from Ontario’s far north, spurring investment in well-paying jobs to replace those lost after the 2008-09 recession.
Remote First Nations would benefit from expanding roads or rail links to bolster ties with cities along the Trans-Canada highway, supporters argued, providing a path for tourism dollars to flow north to a region largely untouched by commercial development. It would be Ontario’s oil sands, others crowed, but better because environmental disruptions would be minimal in comparison.
And the $60 billion figure could represent a fraction of the true economic value of chromite, nickel, copper, platinum and gold deposits in the region, according to James Franklin, former chief geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada. Franklin told delegates at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention in March 2013 that anywhere from $140 to $190 billion in additional economic value exists in the Ring of Fire from gold deposits alone, calling $60 billion a “conservative estimate.” This was an opportunity, said Rick Bartolucci, Ontario’s mining minister in December 2011, and Ontario was not going to squander it.
But at its worst, five years on and the Ring of Fire’s story is one of political grandstanding, backroom corporate maneuvering, legal challenges and environmental concern. Mistrust defines the relationship between mining companies, First Nations and the province. The Matawa First Nations, an association of nine Aboriginal communities in the region, decided early last year they must respond with one voice to rapid and intense mining interest on their traditional land, beginning a protracted negotiation with the province.
It’s a region in desperate need of a plan to guide development of the James Bay lowlands, home largely to First Nations, bogs and fens, roaming caribou herds and stunted tamarack and black spruce trees growing between thousands of shallow rivers and lakes that dot the landscape. It is here that mining companies have come to claim their fortune in what has the potential to become one of the single largest mineral deposits in Canadian history, dwarfing in value the iconic Klondike discoveries that shaped Western and Northern Canada. But the north is not a quiet place, and as Ontario picks up the pieces from its headlong rush to develop the northern boreal and get a once promising mining project on track, it’s about to get louder.
UNDERSTANDING THE RING OF FIRE
No one was ready for it. In 2001, a small group of geologists and junior mining company executives came across numerous deposits in Northern Ontario. The explorers would only slowly begin to realize the expanse of mineral wealth in the region: chromite, nickel, copper, platinum, zinc, gold and vanadium metals. It was a massive find, according to Stan Sudol, a veteran industry analyst from Sudbury in the heart of Ontario’s mining country.
The Ring of Fire discovery ranks second only to previous mineral finds around Sudbury in the 19th and early 20th centuries in terms of economic potential. After 2001, copper and zinc were found, leading to a staking rush as early players such as Spider and KWG Resources made their own claims. Rumour has it an initial company principal noticed the minerals formed a crescent shape – but not quite a full ring — and, being a Johnny Cash fan, choose the nickname “Ring of Fire” after the Man in Black’s 1963 song. The name was a hit with the investment community and quickly stuck. But it wasn’t until junior mining company Noront Resources made their nickel and copper discovery in 2007 that the area’s full potential was realized.
To say the Ring of Fire is off the beaten path is an understatement. It doesn’t exist on any map you’ll find online save for specialty mining documents. The area is home to more than 4,200 on-reserve First Nations residents in nine communities: Aroland, Constance Lake, Eabametoong, Ginoogaming, Long Lac 58, Marten Falls, Neskantaga, Nibinamik and Webequie. The region under intense scrutiny now is a small portion of the province’s far north, lying roughly 500 kilometres north-east of Thunder Bay, roughly half way as the crow flies between DeBeer’s Victor diamond mine near Attawapiskat First Nation on James Bay to the east and Goldcorp’s Musselwhite gold mine to the west near nothing much in particular.
Mining has a long reach in this part of the province, and not all of it pleasant: DeBeer’s Victor mine was blockaded numerous times by First Nations in 2013 who felt tricked by the impact benefit agreement they signed with the company in 2005. The mine has since gone into production. The real prize in the Ring of Fire find is chromite, a key component in stainless steel, and Ontario may be sitting on one of the richest deposits in the world.
“People say big deal, but chromite is probably the third most used base metal in the hierarchy of mining,” Sudol told me in a cafe near his Toronto office. Ontario’s untapped stash of chromite is especially enticing for miners and government because no other source in North America has been found and most global sources come from politically unstable regions in India and Kazakhstan.
Let’s take a step back. In 2010, then Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty took the unprecedented step of passing legislation protecting over 450,000 square kilometres (more than 42 per cent of the province’s entire land mass) of peat, wetlands and boreal forest in the north. The Far North Act would usher in “a new era of social prosperity, economic certainty and environmental protection,” said Natural Resource Minister Linda Jeffrey in September 2010, giving First Nations greater say in what activities would take place on their traditional territory through community land use plans. It would also utilize the Far North as a global carbon sink for more than 12 million tonnes of CO2 yearly.
Despite a smattering of support from academics and environmental groups, First Nations in the province from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said the bill passed over their “unanimous and fundamental objections.” Nishnawbe Aski Grand Chief Stan Beardy’s primary concern was that the Act would freeze most forms of modern development, including mining, in order to protect ecological integrity, stunting his people’s efforts to achieve economic independence. Harold Wilson, president of the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce, said the Far North Act would have stifled any discoveries made in the Ring of Fire had it been in effect at the time.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Far North Act’s focus on community-based land use plans aimed to break the massive region into manageable segments, according to Anna Baggio, a campaigner with environmental non-profit Wildlands League. But while the objective was to protect a 225,000 square kilometre interconnected network under such plans, the government failed to factor how a project of the Ring of Fire’s scope would collaborate with a smattering of disjointed local plans.
“They were supposed to stitch the plans together,” Baggio said.” The effect was to swamp the legislation before it got off the ground. The Ring of Fire was the Act’s first real test, Baggio told me in her Toronto office, and the government was “ill-equipped” to consider it with the tools it created for itself considering the development required the approval, funding and cooperation of nine First Nations communities, three levels of government and dozens of private companies. Queen’s Park had nothing in place to help anyone figure out how to prepare the region for such a massive industrial operation, Baggio said.
The environmental assessment process, governed provincially and federally by the Ministry of the Environment, is not inclined to say no to any kind of development, said Cheryl Chetkiewicz, associate conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. It’s difficult to manage the risks of inviting new development into an intact place like Ontario’s Far North given no one required anyone to take a regional view. The issue here is a lack of cumulative thinking about the region, Chetkiewicz said in a telephone interview from her office in Thunder Bay. No one mine in would exist in a vacuum: rather, it would join two, three or ten other mines, smelters or pulp and paper mills also operating in the same watershed.
The effect is companies, governments and First Nations are left to look out for their own interests with little incentive — much less requirement — to consider how their needs fit into a broader range of uses for the land. “There is no reason why a proponent like Cliffs would have to look downstream of their project,” Chetkiewicz said: “there’s no process in the current land use planning to allow communities like Attawapiskat to have some kind of say in what’s happening in the Ring of Fire even though they live downstream and will be impacted” by potential waterborne pollutants like mercury.
But Ontario’s current Northern Development and Mines Minister, Michael Gravelle, defended the Far North legislation, calling the level of engagement with local First Nations “absolutely unprecedented” in creating a framework for First Nations governments to determine where on their traditional territory development would take place. While acknowledging there remains criticism of the Act, Gravelle was adamant on one point: “I can say with real confidence the Far North Act has not in any way impeded the process related to the Ring of Fire moving forward.”
DUTY TO CONSULT
No one bothered asking First Nations what they want out of this resource push in the beginning, but the nine First Nations who formed the Matawa First Nations corporation in 1988 saw opportunity. Not all members of the affected communities were equally enthusiastic about the changes they knew would from “opening up” the region, however. People 50 and over in the Matawa area are primarily concerned with the health of their land, lakes and rivers and are keen to keep them pollution-free. Hunting, fishing and trapping are very much the way of life for these individuals, according to Matawa CEO David Paul Achneepineskum, and any resource extraction project threatening their livelihood will be fiercely contested. Increased contact with outsiders may increase alcohol and substance abuse issues, a concern that needs addressing, he said.
But the opinion of those under 50 tell a different story. This cohort of young Aboriginals, the fastest growing demographic in Canada, realize there will be negative consequences from all-weather access linking their now fly-in communities with southern towns and beyond: but as long as those impacts are minimized, the opportunity can’t come soon enough. “If it’s done right, [there is] an opportunity to enhance the economic opportunities for our people,” Achneepineskum said.
Facing an unexpected onslaught of prospectors and mining executives in their backyard, the Matawa Chiefs realized they needed to speak as one to potential mining companies looking to drill on their land and to government keen on promoting their $60 billion find. A 2011 unity declaration accepted by all nine Chiefs confirmed their partnership but left the new organization without a blueprint to guide discussions. Rather than hope the outsiders would know what their communities hoped for from future developments, the Chiefs were proactive.
In January 2013, a bare bones regional framework agreement with the province was developed. Newly minted Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, less than two months on the job but keen to show her interest in working collaboratively with First Nations, accepted the document and the provision that Matawa was set to hire former Ontario New Democratic Party Premier and interim federal Liberal leader Bob Rae as their chief negotiator.
The document spelled out what Matawa wanted from any mining claims in the region: quality land management that respects environmental protection; resource revenue sharing; and capacity building through employment, training opportunities and improved infrastructure to an area that otherwise has little. These pillars would form the basis of what Rae and former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, retained by the province to negotiate with Matawa on the people’s behalf, would continue to debate until an agreement was reached in March 2014.
Yet ‘consult early and consult often’ with local Aboriginal populations, preferably in a meaningful way, was the near constant advice to mining companies from government, analysts, environmentalists and First Nations themselves to ensure companies obtained the proper social license so crucial to making sure Aboriginal rights in the mining process. But “stakeholder engagement” — a fancy term for the often messy but necessary work of actually talking to people affected by development — is often worth its weight in gold for companies at risk of investing fortunes in projects local opposition is strong enough to halt. Wildlands League’s Anna Baggio said it has become “absolutely essential” for a mining company to obtain a social license from affected communities and the public at large to operate.
“Days are past when we can take companies at face value,” she said. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper, addressing PDAC in March of this year, urged industry leaders to engage with Aboriginal communities “not just [from] the standpoint of legal and process requirements for engaging,” he said, “but that it’s always better to do business when all lines of communication are open and local people understand the advantages that are there for them.”
Yet for far too long the process of industry engagement with Aboriginal communities across Canada has been window dressing as companies fly by the seat of their pants to explore, permit and operate a claim as quickly as possible to generate shareholder revenue. That’s from Hans Matthews, president of the Canadian Aboriginal Mining Association. From Ontario’s Wahnapitae First Nation, Matthews is no stranger to Aboriginal consultations having sat as member of the National Energy Board’s joint review panel investigating the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal in northern British Columbia. “There is still a mentality where companies are just looking at communities as checkboxes and not actually genuine partners in development, [and] that has been the stumbling block,” he told me in a phone interview from his home in Wahnapitae.
Companies and communities can move beyond the functionality of signing hollow agreements, but it takes time and, crucially, trust. But the fundamental problem never addressed when talking about Aboriginal-to-government or Aboriginal-to-industry consultation is that no one dares define the term. “You will not find a definition from government, industry or an Aboriginal community on what consultation means,” Matthews said.
“And that’s a problem.” Letters, phone calls, emails and voicemail may constitute engagement to some while others define it as nothing less than protracted face-to-face talks, design and veto rights over a project. The result is miscommunications, frustration, delays and a breakdown of whatever trust may exist as companies and government feel – legitimately, from their perspective – to have fulfilled their duty to consult. Yet First Nations, operating under a different understanding of what it means to consult, often feel disrespected at the lack of meaningful discussion.
Mining companies with a presence in the Ring of Fire have had mixed results in how they approached First Nation consultations. From Baggio’s perspective, Cliffs never seemed fully comfortable attempting to operate in the Canadian mining world with its numerous levels of government, strenuous and lengthy permitting processes and emphasis on Aboriginal involvement. “I don’t think they fully understood the First Nations context or that they had a responsibility to show due diligence [and] get a social license,” she told me. The company executives came across as “slightly tone deaf” to the fact that Ontarians were paying attention, even if most of us live more than a thousand kilometres away along the Lake Ontario shore.
But many people have independently told me Noront, operator of the Eagle’s Nest nickel and copper mine in the Ring, has been a “textbook example” of how First Nation consultations should be run. (Noront CEO Alan Coutts and Aboriginal Affairs Director Leanne Hall, however, passed on the opportunity to speak with This about their Ring of Fire project and work with local First Nations.) In January, Noront released their draft environmental impact statement spelling out the repercussions of developing their Eagle’s Nest project, including human health and wellbeing, changes to the fabric of First Nation’s life and issues regarding substance abuse. The report also details how species-at-risk — Woodland Caribou, bald eagles or Peregrine Falcons — and their habitat will suffer, to some extent, from the mine construction, a 30 metre road clearance and the digging of a quarry.
Caribou, a provincially threatened species, will see an estimated 1,000 hectares of high suitability habitat eliminated as a result of mine construction and lose access to a further 100,000 hectares of prime habitat as they try to avoid mining sites and roads. Yet the report also outlines numerous socio-economic benefits the local First Nation’s population of 15,541 can take advantage of, including the Ring of Fire Aboriginal Training Alliance, a joint initiative of the Kiikenomaga Kilenjigewen Employment Training Services, Noront and Confederation College in Thunder Bay.
The company also predicts their mining operation will boost the regional economy by creating 780 direct construction jobs and a further 390 operation positions, jobs paying an average of 60 per cent higher than traditional industrial jobs in Ontario. Colin Webster, the Aboriginal, Community and Government Director with mining giant Goldcorp, spoke with me at Toronto’s PDAC in Toronto and praised the work Noront was doing with Aboriginal groups in the Ring of Fire, calling them a front runner to get a project up and running. “Anything [Goldcorp] would have done they are already doing,” he said.
But Webster and Chief Isadore Day of Serpent River First Nation in northern Ontario, told PDAC attendees the problem Aboriginals, industry and government are having in the Ring of Fire stems from something larger, something deeper than any one mining project. “It goes back to treaty relationships and revisiting that to get everybody on the same page,” Webster told me. And the Rae/Iacobucci talks on Matawa’s regional framework aren’t sufficient to address this. He pointed to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement from 1975, the first modern land claim agreement setting out environmental and social protections for James Bay and Nunavik First Nations as an example of what Ontario needs in the Ring of Fire.
“Development in [northern Quebec] is clear, it’s certain and … I think the communities there are prospering as a result of this,” Webster told me. For Chief Day, treaty rights must become the focal point for any resource negotiation between First Nations and the province on a government-to-government and nation-to-nation basis, he told a PDAC session on Aboriginal engagement in the mining sector. Ontario also lacks a First Nations Mining Secretariat, one reason why negotiations over mining projects drag on, Day said, asking conference goers: “Do you think [we] would have faced as many challenges in the Ring of Fire” with a secretariat in place? “I don’t think so.”
Beyond deeper concerns over treaty rights, Achneepineskum and many of his fellow Matawa residents are left waiting – for opportunity, for jobs, for a way to stem the tide of young people fleeing their communities in search of work. With or without year-round access accompanying new mining projects, Achneepineskum said his community in Marten Falls where his grandchildren live is already losing youth. Their hope is “to retain young people so they can live within their own lands and still have opportunities to work here and be closer to their communities,” he told me. “We want to encourage them to return.”
Northern Ontario’s more bustling towns and cities are strung out along the concrete ribbon of the Trans-Canada highway running east-west along the north shore of Lake Superior. Only smaller roads branch out in all directions, but even these routes have to end, often well short of remote First Nations communities dependent on ice roads and small aircraft to get in or out. The influx of mining interest in the region may provide a host of opportunities for First Nations in the Ring of Fire to travel outside their communities and welcome outsiders and their tourist dollars in, but the challenge is an acute lack of infrastructure, the roads, bridges and rail that would allow people and goods to come and go. Companies can’t agree on how best to develop scare infrastructure to get miners and equipment into the region and raw material out for processing, and so roads and remain little more than pleasant thoughts.
Toronto-based junior mining company KWG Resources Inc. first began exploring the James Bay Lowlands in the early 1990s, mostly for diamonds. Through their discoveries and those of other junior miners in the area like Noront, at the turn of the last century a staking rush began to portion off areas that companies believed held the greatest potential for unearthing valuable metals. Unlike diamonds, chromite is extremely heavy and difficult to transport, even in high concentrations. It became clear to veteran miner and KWG CEO Frank Smeenk in 2008 that his company would be unable to handle costs of exploration and development of the mine in addition to raising capital to construct a rail line stretching from his company’s deposit — known as ‘Big Daddy’ — to the nearest rail hub, 330 km to the south at Nakina.
Smeenk also became convinced a rail option would stand the best chance of gaining environmental, government and First Nations approval. “It never occurred to me that anyone would ever contemplate shipping hundreds of millions of tonnes of (chromite ore) over a period of decades if not centuries any way other than by railroad,” he told reporters in May 2013. To raise capital needed to get the project moving, Smeenk signed a partnership with Cleveland-based mining giant Cliffs Natural Resources and, in consultation with his new American partners, KWG surveyed a vast expanse of swampy muskeg and found one ridge of sand, called an esker, snaking south from Big Daddy to Nakina.
To cement their hold on the land for future development, Smeenk’s surveyors staked the vast majority of the claim between May and September 2009. But his working relationship with Cliffs wouldn’t last. The U.S. miner became convinced two different discoveries — Black Label and Black Thor — held more potential and, through a series of buyouts, came to control a majority stake in Big Daddy, the project KWG brought Cliffs in to help them develop. Despite initial support of a rail link connecting Big Daddy and other mines in the region to the south, Cliffs began touting the benefits of an all-weather, north-south road, a move that “puzzled” many in the industry, Sudol told me. “Something of that volume is generally transported by train,” he said.
Smeenk also enjoyed support for his rail plan from the General Chairperson’s Association (GCA), the group representing the province’s unionized employees at Ontario Northland Transportation Corporation (ONTC), a northern railway company serving the province’s hinterland. Cliffs’ road plan enjoyed the support of the provincial government, and the company hinted that they expected road costs would be heavily subsidized by provincial taxpayers because of the benefits accrued to local First Nations.
And while Cliffs never stated publicly what they hoped taxpayers would cough up, rumour was the road would reach $700 million or more to build. “This single purpose road would do nothing to improve the social and economic development for First Nation’s communities in the region,” said GCA spokesperson Brian Kelly in Sept. 2013. Moreover, “maintenance of the road would be extraordinary,” Sudol told me, “and who would be responsible for that [in] 60 years? The company or the taxpayers?”
Smeenk was uninterested in Cliff’s offer to buy them out of Big Daddy, but faced a fundamental problem: with Cliffs in control of the mine but KWG controlling the only viable transportation route in the region, who would blink first? Neither side, after their short-lived partnership acrimoniously fell apart, was in an accommodating mood. It didn’t help that months before, Premier McGuinty signalled the province would sell ONTC off in an austerity-minded effort to cut back on the subsidies they claimed were needed to keep the northern rail crown corporation viable.
“Just as the Ring of Fire is becoming understood and challenges are becoming appreciated, [McGuinty] picked that moment to say our provincial government had decided to liquidate ONTC assets,” Smeenk told me in a telephone interview in January. “I am still gobsmacked by the perversity of that coming when it did.” The people of Northern Ontario were incensed. “Railroads are absolutely integral for mineral production” in that part of the province, Sudol said.
In February 2013, a numbered company belonging to Cliffs took a subsidiary of KWG to Ontario’s Mining and Lands Commissioner to break the transportation deadlock. Using the Public Lands Act, the U.S. mining giant argued they deserved an opportunity to share the transportation corridor with KWG staked when the companies were partners. Was this matter truly in the public interest, as Cliffs claimed, or simply a corporate struggle? Commissioner Kamerman took until Sept. 10, 2013 to issue her ruling, but determined it was the latter. “What is before this tribunal is no more than a simple corporate fight,” she wrote. “The interests of both parties cannot be balanced” as KWG’s rights under the Mining Act would be negatively affected if Cliffs gained access to the potential transportation route. And since KWG staked the claim, from a resource development perspective, it was theirs to develop if and how they saw fit. Jason Aagenes, environmental director with Cliffs, told reporters his company was “disappointed” the ruling was “not necessarily in Cliffs favour.”
Kamerman also took the Liberal government to task for taking no part in the hearing despite having suggested public dollars may help Cliffs build their all weather road and make good on a promised investment of $3.3 billion in the Sudbury area.
Throughout the hearing and after, mining minister Gravelle kept out of the spotlight amid growing concerns that while the Commissioner’s ruling was good for KWG, it left the already murky future of the Ring of Fire in even greater doubt. Ontario’s reluctance to get involved struck Smeenk as “very unusual.” Uncertainty surrounding how infrastructure in the Ring of Fire would unfold had to end, Gravelle told me at Queen’s Park, and “there’s no question that [Kamerman’s] decision solidified for me … that the time is now, and we need to make a decision by bringing the companies together.”
In his home riding of Thunder Bay on Nov. 8, Gravelle announced the formation of a development corporation to bring interested companies, First Nations and other levels of government together to hash out how the north would be opened up. Yet wouldn’t the proposed development corporation have made more sense in 2010? When I asked, Gravelle rejected the idea the DevCo was intended to save a project “spiralling out of control,” as Sudol suggested. Had the development corporation taken shape before proper negotiations between Rae and Iacobucci got underway it could have undermined those talks, he said. “This is exactly the right time.”
But an announcement from Cliffs less than two weeks later that the company was “indefinitely halting” all their development in the Ring of Fire took the wind out of Gravelle’s sails. Cliffs wasn’t planning on selling their stakes and leaving the region altogether, according to a company spokesperson in Jan. 2014. The U.S. miner still had an appeal of Kamerman’s ruling active and signalled its intention to participate in future talks on the DevCo, but it was a heavy blow to the government that had long held Cliffs’ interest in the Ring of Fire as an example of the region’s potential and the government’s ability to attract investment from global companies. Negotiations for how the DevCo would be formed dragged on through the end of 2013 and into 2014.
Gravelle announced in February of this year that consulting firm Deloitte had been brought in to lead talks on governance structure and other legalities, but gave no indication of when the DevCo would be formed, or meeting, or making project recommendations let alone getting shovels in the ground to construct upwards of $2 billion in infrastructure needs.
The time needed to set the development corporation’s terms is yet another delay in finding a resolution to the complex infrastructure dilemma facing the area’s First Nations and mining companies. Rae threw cold water on impatient reporters in November 2013 who questioned what was taking so long. “Minerals don’t go stale, right? We’ve all got to stick at it and not simply throw up our hands every time one company makes one decision or another,” he said. In our February interview, Gravelle reminded me only one in 10,000 mining claims become operational and the process, because of more stringent environmental and consulting regulations, is slow by nature. “There is a tendency for people to say they want to see it move forward more quickly,” he said. “If one looks at the story of almost every major mine project certainly in the province and probably anywhere, five to ten years is not unusual.”
Smeenk, meanwhile, has turned his focus in the Ring of Fire elsewhere as Cliffs screeching halt continues to hamstring any hope his company has of developing Big Daddy which they still control 30 per cent of. But given KWG’s decades-long involvement in the region and that Big Daddy’s undoing came from the partner he invited into the Ring of Fire, was Smeenk frustrated with the outcome? “We are sleeping in the bed we made,” he told me, but his bitterness was hard to miss. “In the current environment the received wisdom is that big companies can do no wrong and little companies can do nothing,” he said. “But … my first mistake was inviting Cliffs to become a shareholder of KWG.”
The much vaunted Far North Act, the Ontario legislation aiming to create a patchwork of community land use plans, was destined to fail when anyone attempted to apply its local framework regionally. Rather than push forward with its development corporation, Queen’s Park should call a timeout on all projects in the Ring of Fire until a strategic environmental assessment is done to balance the needs of First Nations, the public, environment and industry, according to Baggion from Wildlands League. “It would help build this framework for what development would look like and consider protections and conservation of the region,” she told me.
“Everybody could say at the end of this process we’ll have a plan to guide development and all these companies can slot their plans for their individual mines within that bigger framework.” The irony, Baggio pointed out, is that if Ontario had taken this step years ago the assessment would have long been completed and the mining projects much further advanced than they are today. Chetkiewicz, the conservation biologist with Wildlife Conservation Society, said the strategic assessment is a “fit-to-context” process that would be guided by realities on the ground as determined by 36 First Nations in the entirety of northern Ontario and relevant provincial ministries. “It would put a bigger frame around the Ring of Fire,” she said. “I’m not suggesting this is an easy thing … but that’s the kind of sit down [discussions] we need.
Few outside the board rooms of Toronto-based mining companies knew the magnitude of what they uncovered in early 2001, and few could have imagined the thicket of overlapping interests that would later crash head-first in an optimistic rush to move minerals to market. Despite keen interest shown in the Ring of Fire from First Nations, the Ontario government and the mining sector, no one — to this day — has a clear picture of who has ultimate responsibility to lead its development.
There should have been an arrangement between the province and the federal government since at least 2010 to stickhandle social and economic issues between industry and First Nations, Sudol told me. Ontario’s mining minister Gravelle couldn’t agree more, though he may disagree with Sudol’s timeline: throughout the last half of 2013 Gravelle has continually stressed the national significance of the Ring of Fire and wondered aloud why Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes an avid interest in funding resource extraction projects in British Columbia and Newfoundland & Labrador while Ontario gets short shrift.
“The federal government should be embracing us as full partners,” Gravelle told me. But Baggio stressed that first and foremost it’s Ontario’s responsibility to get the process right and do their due diligence with First Nations, while Frank Smeenk from KWG stressed it was his personal opinion that industry has and should continue to take a lead in developing the region. “I don’t think we need any help other than to leave the forces of the marketplace free to make the best determination that they would,” he said.
Yet for all the benefits Aboriginal communities across Canada may get from mining through resource revenue agreements or access to direct and indirect jobs and training, one prominent group is urging First Nations to look past the traditional boom and bust mining cycle for opportunity, and it may be the group you’d least expect. Hans Matthews of the Canadian Aboriginal Mining Association told me for the past decade his organization has been encouraging First Nations groups country-wide to forgo short-term benefits of resource extraction for long-term social and economic chances brought about by environmental management.
“You don’t know how many Chiefs have come up to me and said ‘Four of our band members got laid off’ [at the local mine]. Being involved in a mining industry is not sustainable for a community,” Matthews said. But the environmental industry will always be around whether the mine is open or closed, he said. Jobs in this field could be anything from working with government on reclamation of abandoned or orphaned mines, using traditional knowledge in the development of GIS technologies or working towards habitat or watershed protection and restoration. “We saw that a lot of communities were getting frustrated with not catching the wave on the mine opening or not getting involved in the design or any kind of economic activity from a mine,” he said.
“We have lots of experience in what community expectations are from mining projects, and we have seen a lot of disappointment where communities are asking ‘What did we get out of it?’” Chetkiewicz agreed there are unexplored opportunities for First Nations in Canada to financially benefit from environmental stewardship. “If we honestly recognize those peatlands [in Northern Ontario] in an intact state contribute to global climate change regulation and we value that, why wouldn’t it be possible to think communities could be paid to look after that landscape the way that it is?” she asked.
For Sudol, whose parents migrated from Poland to Sudbury in the late 1940s, he has seen the booms and busts of mining cycles first hand since childhood. He also saw the missed opportunities for First Nations in and around his hometown as labour shortages in the mines led to men like his father coming in from around the world for opportunities not available to local Aboriginals.
“No one ever thought to reach out to the many First Nations communities that surrounded Sudbury, and there was such a missed opportunity because we could have had the beginnings of a fairly large Aboriginal middle class in the area whose children, just like the children of all the immigrants who went to Sudbury, went on to white collar jobs,” he told me. “We are getting a second chance here in the Ring of Fire” to do just that.
Time lost in advancing the Ring of Fire to slow-moving government bureaucracies and corporate struggles over land access laid bare the underlying tensions surrounding how Ontario’s remote Far North should be “opened.” Lawsuits and legal challenges, the slew of eager industry players champing at the bit but tied down by lengthy permitting and approvals processes, the environmental concerns and the Bay Street political heavyweights brought in to negotiate the spoils of mineral extraction all point to the immense socio-economic potential of the Ring of Fire to be a driving force for good for those living in the region.
But it also highlights the absolute necessity, as I heard so often, of effective planning to make sure we “get it right” and avoid the danger of having development in the Ring of Fire degenerate into a “wild west,” as Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner warned in October 2013.
In chiding reporters in November 2013 that “minerals don’t go stale,” Matawa negotiator Bob Rae made a valid point: most are eager to see the benefits of long-term, environmentally conscionable mining accrue to First Nations whose land is being torn apart to wrench mineral wealth from the ground. But as Rae pointed out, “the question is [making sure] the right conditions, people with the right [financial] abilities … and the right framework as far as the governments and First Nations” are in place, he told reporters after a speech to Toronto’s Empire Club.
Matawa CEO Achneepineskum agrees developing the Ring of Fire is inevitable, an outcome he welcomes when his people are satisfied the environmental impacts will be minimal and the economic opportunities abundant. “I believe there is a willingness for a partnership [and] our people certainly want to be involved, that’s what we have said from the beginning,” he told me. But maybe everyone should take a step back, Achneepineskum said. The Ring of Fire will proceed so long as there are benefits for everybody, “especially our people living on that land.”