The chief of Webequie First Nation said the Ontario government is failing to live up to its commitment with his community after the province announced the establishment of an infrastructure development corporation on Aug. 28.
Instead of working with the Matawa First Nation in the Ring of Fire to develop the corporation, Chief Cornelius Wabasse said the Ontario government “unilaterally move(d) ahead,” a decision he called “disappointing.”
The province first announced its intention to establish an infrastructure development corporation in early July, which would decide how to invest Ontario’s $1-billion dollar commitment to Ring of Fire infrastructure. The corporation would “work to bring First Nations and the public and private sectors together to create partnerships and facilitate investment decisions in strategic transportation infrastructure.”
In the Aug. 28 announcement, Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle said the not-for-profit corporation has an interim board of directors composed of four Ontario public servants. The announcement said that the corporation would evolve and its board of directors would broaden to include First Nations membership.
However, Wabasse said this was decision was made without First Nations input. “What we’re saying we’re supposed to be working side-by-side to develop that. A path of process needs to happen so we can select who is going to be on that board,” Wabasse told Wawatay News. “Now they’re at the stage where they put in a board of directors from their side, the Ontario side. But there is no First Nation content. That’s the problem with that (development corporation).”
Wabasse said he was not aware of the impending announcement until days before.
“Minister Gravelle called me before, giving me a heads up that they’ll be doing an announcement,” he said. “And I told him that I thought he said that we were supposed to be working together, to make that type of announcement.”
Instead, Wabasse said, “Ontario is just moving forward without meaningful consultation and (without) working together side-by-side with First Nations.”
Gravelle could not be reached directly for comment. In a statement forwarded by a Ministry of Northern Development and Mines representative, Gravelle said Ontario is committed to working in “full-partnership with Matawa-member First Nations as well as the other key partners to drive smart, sustainable and collaborative development in the Ring of Fire.”
He said that he and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne travelled to Marten Falls First Nation to attend the Matawa annual general meeting to discuss its commitment.
“I was also able to connect with Chief Wabasse and other Matawa-member First Nation leadership prior to making the announcement last week where we had a good discussion and I was able to hear their concerns,” he said. “It is a top priority for our government and my ministry to continue to build on the work of the historic framework agreement and to continue to work closely with the Matawa-member First Nations and all partners to ensure that this project moves forward in a cooperative and respectful manner.”
With the Ontario government working to develop the Ring of Fire, Wabasse said “we have told Ontario that there are principles that have to be recognized.”
“The treaty rights, jurisdiction and now indigenous laws must be respected too,” he said. “And we’ve said all along that our process must be community-based and community-driven, so one has to recognize those processes. And we’re not even at that stage yet. We’re in the middle of that stage where we are developing community-focuses and processes. So the government needs to recognize that.”
In an Aug. 29 media release, Wabasse said Webequie’s confidence in the regional process has been shaken.
“Our community members are upset,” he said. “We agreed as a community to negotiate with Ontario in good faith. This can’t happen if Ontario makes decisions without our involvement.”
According to Ontario, the development corporation would work with key partners including First Nations, industry, communities, and the federal government, to formalize partnerships through the corporation, and overseeing an economic and technical baseline feasibility report on transportation infrastructure.
Last spring, the nine Matawa First Nations – including Webequie – and Ontario signed a framework agreement which the parties said would ensure the First Nation communities benefit from the proposed Ring of Fire development.
The framework agreement allowed the two parties to move forward with a negotiation process on a community-based regional approach to development in the Ring of Fire. It also ensured First Nations and Ontario can work together to advance Ring of Fire opportunities, including regional long-term environmental monitoring and enhanced participation in environmental assessment processes, resource revenue sharing, economic supports, regional and community infrastructure.
The Ring of Fire, located about 540 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, has mineral potential believed to be worth $60 billion dollars and includes the largest deposit of chromite ever discovered in North America. Chromite is a key ingredient in stainless steel. The area also holds the potential for significant production of nickel, copper and platinum.