When Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. suspended development on its chromite project in Ontario’s remote Ring of Fire in November 2013, many saw it as an opportunity for the province to get serious about addressing critical infrastructure and Aboriginal issues.
The Ring of Fire region, located in northwestern Ontario near the Manitoba border, is believed to possess between C$30 billion and C$50 billion in mineral resources, with Ontario’s Ministry of Northern Development and Mines estimating its value as high as C$60 billion. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce argued that development will generate as much as C$9.4 billion in GDP and create up to 5,500 jobs on an annual basis, all within the first 10 years of development.
This would be a substantial boon for the region, which is home to numerous First Nations communities but with very little business development or opportunity, due to its lack of transportation infrastructure connecting it to the rest of the province.
In May 2014, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne pledged C$1 billion for infrastructure spending to encourage mineral development in the region if she were re-elected. Wynne also pledged to create a development corporation to encourage and oversee development there.
After her election in June 2014, her government created the fund and the development corporation.
So, where are we now?
In March, junior miner Noront Resources Ltd. acquired two Cliffs subsidiaries for US$20 million, which include the Black Thor and Black Label chromite deposits and a 70% interest in the Big Daddy chromite deposit.
On June 22, Ontario approved the terms of reference — the first step in the environmental assessment process — for Noront’s Eagle’s Nest nickel-copper-platinum group element deposit, also located in the Ring of Fire.
Ontario’s Ministry of Northern Development and Mines emphasized the complexity of bringing mineral projects to realization in the area in a statement to SNL Metals & Mining on July 9.
“Realizing the full potential of the Ring of Fire is an extremely complex undertaking so we have to make sure we get it right,” Minister Michael Gravelle said in the statement.
“Our government is laying the groundwork to drive smart, sustainable and collaborative development in the region. Ontario supports development in the Ring of Fire that strikes the right balance between environmental protection and resource development.”
For some critics of Ontario’s policy, development is coming much too slowly.
“This whole Ring of Fire issue has dragged on so slowly,” mining analyst Stan Sudol told SNL on July 3. “I’m perplexed because the economic potential is so great, and with Ontario being as in debt as it is, along with the challenges in the global economy — you sort of look at what policies are coming out of [Ontario legislature location] Queen’s Park, and you just shake your head.”
“I’d love to be able to sit the government down and say, what is holding you back?”
Sudol is adamant that development of the region would have the potential to significantly improve the lives of First Nations communities in the region as well as add business to southern Ontario firms.
“It would benefit the First Nations, First Nation businesses, and non-aboriginal business in northern Ontario,” he said. “A lot of the work will be handled by companies based in the greater Toronto area or in Sudbury [in northern Ontario], which is the second-largest hub for mining supplies in Ontario.”
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