Chief-elect Wayne Moonias says it feels like Noront Resources and the Ontario government have put a collective gun to the heads of Northern Ontario First Nations.
Moonias, who will take the reins of Neskantag First Nation on April 1, was reacting to news earlier this week that Noront Resources Inc. was maneuvering to purchase 103 Ring of Fire claims from subsidiaries of Cliffs Natural Resources, meanwhile setting a March 31 deadline to reveal the terms of reference for its environmental assessment process for claims the company had already staked.
Moonias added Matawa First Nation chiefs, who gathered Wednesday in Thunder Bay to unanimously speak out against the sale, believe the company is operating beyond a framework agreement his people signed last year with Ontario and that First Nations should have a say in the transaction.
“We’re trying to ensure that our rights are respected and protected,” Moonias said. “This is a critical time in our communities. Those days are gone when the government and industry came in and took all the resources in our community.”
The Ring of Fire, a multibillion-dollar mother-lode of chromite and other minerals, will never be developed if true partnerships aren’t formed, the chiefs said. That means First Nations must be involved every step of the way, said Aroland First Nation Chief Sonny Gagnon.
“I feel like the framework agreement was a diversion,” Gagnon told a packed house at a hastily called news conference.
“It seems like there were some backroom deals for sure.”
First Nations aren’t against development, he added, but it has to be on their terms.
“This is where we hunt, where we fish,” Gagnon said. “I was born and raised there and it’s where I still practice my way of life. I’m going to die there.”
Gagnon said his people must have input on the terms of reference, and the time to understand exactly what’s being proposed.
“It’s been driven from industry to government all along and we’ve been saying it needs to be driven by the communities,” Gagnon said.
Constance Lake First Nation Chief Fred Sackaney said Noront appears to be pushing its own agenda, at the expense of those living on the land.
“We want to take care of the land,” Sackaney said. “At the same time, we need to be a part of the process so that we can be a player and not just looking at it, shaking hands and walking away.”
Noront and other mining companies had better be aware, he added.
“They show a lot of disrespect to First Nations. But just because they look down on us doesn’t mean we’re going to look up to them,” he said.
“I think we’re starting off on a bad foot and we thought the framework was on solid footing.”
Sackaney said it’s not just Noront at issue here. The province is just as complicit, he said.
“My thinking is the government is trying to please Noront so they can satisfy the public and satisfy investors that they’re making progress in the North.”
Both Noront and the province were contacted for comment, but neither was immediately available on Wednesday evening.
Sackaney said First Nations will not “settle for anything other than nothing but the best so we can live comfortably and live our lives freely.”