New planning tool could lead to ‘better results, less confrontation’ – by Bryan Phelan (Wawatay News – September 18, 2014)

Representatives of environmental groups and Matawa First Nations Management (MFNM) had preliminary talks earlier this year about Regional Strategic Environmental Assessment (R-SEA) as a new planning tool for the Ring of Fire.

The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment once praised R-SEA as “an inherently proactive approach” and “a means to ensure that planning and assessment for a region support the most desired outcomes rather than the most likely one.”

There are numerous examples from around the world where R-SEA has been used successfully, including in Vietnam, Mauritius, Ghana, and Sierra Leone, says Anna Baggio, director of conservation planning for Wildlands League. “It produces better results and helps avoid confrontations and legal challenges.”

Baggio organized a meeting in February when informal discussion of an R-SEA for the Ring of Fire took place. In addition to Wildlands League, other environmental groups represented at the gathering were Mining Watch, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) Canada, and Ecojustice. Also present were various Matawa advisors and experts, Baggio said.

She anticipated a follow-up meeting after the nine chiefs of the Matawa tribal council and the Ontario government signed a framework agreement in March for negotiations on development in the Ring of Fire.

“We are committed to another meeting with them (Matawa) now that the framework has been signed,” Baggio said in June. “They are interested and need more information. They were focused on getting the framework signed last time we met; now that it is signed we can discuss details and share information on R-SEA.”

Meanwhile, WCS and Ecojustice recommended later that month that the provincial government establish a mandatory R-SEA process for Ontario’s Far North, including the Ring of Fire. In a supporting document, they said an R-SEA would enable First Nations, government, industry and other stakeholders to consider multiple mining and infrastructure projects from a regional perspective, currently lacking in project environmental impact assessments and community-based land use planning. “R-SEA is an important tool for creating a ‘made in the North’ process and a plan that can address project development and conservation across the region.”

The document also highlighted several other potential benefits of an R-SEA to First Nations, including:
• Industry would have to demonstrate how their projects would benefit local communities and protect the environment on which they depend, rather than simply consult on impacts and how they would be mitigated and offset in impact-benefit agreements (IBAs).

• First Nations would be provided scientific information for regional data collection and baseline development, rather than rely on industry and/or government.

• An R-SEA of the Ring of Fire could identify other economic development opportunities, not just those related to mining.

The first step would be for the provincial government and First Nations to jointly agree on their roles and responsibilities in the R-SEA process, WCS and Ecojustice suggested in June.

Baggio and Anastasia Lintner, a staff lawyer and economist with Ecojustice at the time (she has since left the organization), both said that an R-SEA could fit under the Ontario-Matawa framework agreement for the Ring of Fire. “The agreement talks about enhancing the environmental assessment process and this could be done by implementing an R-SEA,” Baggio said.

Asked about that possibility, Raymond Ferris, Matawa’s Ring of Fire coordinator, replied: “The Matawa First Nations need to conduct their due diligence by working with and listening to other groups of people, and speaking with experts and so forth. This would allow for taking other opinions and meshing them with the First Nations views, as I am sure there will be similarities.”

One clear objective for Matawa First Nations is to allow the people of their communities the time to participate effectively in a negotiated environmental assessment, as part of larger “community-driven” process, he said.