Ring of Fire Chiefs may demand basic services before mineral development – by Bryan Phelan (Onotassiniik Magazine – Fall 2014)


The same day in June that David Paul Achneepineskum, CEO for Matawa First Nations Management (MFNM), spoke at the Ontario Mining Forum, CBC News reported on a drinking water emergency in Marten Falls First Nation.

Marten Falls, one of nine First Nations that receive advisory and support services from the MFNM tribal council, had been without potable water since a boil-water advisory was issued in 2005, CBC reported June 18. The situation became worse this April when a water filter broke at the community’s water treatment plant, making the water unsafe even for bathing. Chief Eli Moonias said subsequent requests for emergency federal and provincial funding to fix the water treatment plant had to that point been ignored.

Achneepineskum, formerly a band manager and councillor in Marten Falls, referenced this issue and its broader implications while speaking in Thunder Bay as part of a Mining Forum panel on building consensus for mining development in the Ring of Fire.

“If you go to our communities, any one of them, they talk about the social and health issues, they talk about housing, they talk about bad water … particularly water,” he said. “We want proper water treatment, schools, health programs. And in some cases, our chiefs may push that this will be a prerequisite before any development happens, not after the fact.”

In March, the nine members of the Matawa Chiefs Council signed a framework agreement with Ontario that will guide regional negotiations for development in the Ring of Fire, in the traditional territories of several Matawa communities. “This is just the beginning of much more work and planning …, especially in terms of health and social wellness, and infrastructure,” Ginoogaming Chief Celia Echum said of the framework agreement.

Youth counsellors, prescription drug treatment

Indeed, one of three top priorities identified in the agreement for the next stage of negotiations between Matawa and Ontario is better social and economic development supports in the First Nations.

Christine Kaszycki, assistant deputy minister for the Ring of Fire Secretariat of the ministry of northern development and mines (MNDM), said at the Mining Forum these negotiations for improved “community well-being” will have “a particular focus on mental health.”

She noted the provincial government has already funded youth mental health workers for some Matawa First Nations. In late 2012, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services announced it had designated 80 new workers to provide culturally appropriate mental health services to almost 4,000 Aboriginal children and youth in Ontario.

For Matawa communities, the services are being delivered through the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, Onotassiniik was told by Julia Bennett, a spokeswoman for MNDM. “These new workers are providing counselling, individual and group therapy, crisis intervention and a range of traditional health services, including traditional teachings and ceremonies, to Eabametoong, Marten Falls, Neskantaga, Nibinamik and Webequie First Nations.”

In her Mining Forum presentation on “getting it right in the Ring of Fire,” Kaszycki also highlighted another health service provided to Matawa communities in recent years – treatment for prescription drug addiction. Again, Bennett filled in details afterwards: “Health Canada has been delivering prescription drug abuse treatment since 2011, and we understand that 900 Matawa clients have received services,” she said.

“Programming includes accredited training; workshops; community-based withdrawal-treatment projects; credentialed mental health and addictions specialists; and aftercare supports for those on opioid maintenance programs.”

Still, as Chief Echum suggested, there is still much work to be done in the areas of health, social wellness and infrastructure. In some cases the need is desperate.

Just a month after Echum and other Matawa chiefs signed the framework agreement with Ontario, Chief Peter Moonias of Neskantaga was in Toronto making a public “call to action” to address “Fourth World” living conditions in the community of about 420. Ten youth had committed suicide over the previous two years.

Moonias linked the suicides to deplorable living conditions that included: an unsafe drinking water supply for almost 20 years; lack of access to affordable, nutritious food; overcrowded houses infested with black mold; an unemployment rate exceeding 80 per cent; and the ongoing effects of intergenerational trauma.

“The community needs to heal before decisions can properly be made on any development,” Moonias added. “Neskantaga is wounded very badly.”


At the Mining Forum in Thunder Bay, Achneepineskum emphasized that Matawa communities are working for development, not against it, as long as it’s environmentally and socially responsible.

“Our communities and people financially right now are destitute, and development brings hope for a better future,” he said. “We have the wealth in our lands and our rivers.”
The estimated value of chromite and nickel deposits in the Ring of Fire is $60 billion, mined over 30 years, Kaszycki said. There is also economic potential in the area for mining copper, gold and platinum group metals, she added.

Remarked Achneepineskum, later: “There is something the people from outside want in our territories, from our lands … the minerals. So that is one of the reasons the regional framework (agreement) was achieved – because our First Nations had leverage.”
The Crown’s narrow interpretation of past treaties with First Nations – historically respecting only the English letter of the treaties, not oral promises made by treaty commissioners and passed down by elders – has left a legacy of injustice and hurt, said Achneepineskum.

“The injustices are many and have damaged and destroyed many of our people. The legacy of the residential school system, the Indian Act, and displacement of our people from their lands onto reserves has taken a horrific toll on us, which continues today.

We must all acknowledge that our people were almost destroyed by the policies and the legislation of the government with the purpose of dispossessing us of our land, identity and culture.”

It has been a high price to pay “to stay intact as the people of the land,”
Achneepineskum said. “Our people have said they will never, ever permit again those kind of things to happen – that someone will come to our lands, get wealthy from our lands and we sit on the sidelines and get nothing.”

With development in the Ring of Fire, he said, they want to become the miners and lawyers, business owners and even mine owners. They want infrastructure to come right to their communities – roads, electrification and fibre optics, for example – and they want to build and own that infrastructure.

“But also we will need help with our social and health crises in order to fully participate in the opportunities coming to our region,” said Achneepineskum. “We’re really talking about a lot of these problems that have to be solved one way or the other before any development happens.”