Sudbury Accent: A slow road to the Ring [Part 2 of 5] – by Stan Sudol (Sudbury Star – June 4, 2018)

Let’s be brutally honest and frank. Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne and her mines minister, Michael Gravelle, have utterly failed in moving the Ring of Fire forward, which is located in the isolated James Bay lowlands about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.

For slightly more than five years, they have not been able to get shovels in the ground for an essential road into the most promising mineral discoveries in Canada since the Sudbury Basin in 1883, which was found during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

By coincidence, it took a bit less than five years to build the entire CPR in the early 1880s from Ontario to Vancouver – a distance of roughly 4,200 kilometres. The distance between the Ring and the provincial highway system is about 280 kms.

But to cut both of these politicians some political slack, enormous blame must also be given to the previous Harper and current Trudeau governments, as well. First Nations are primarily a federal responsibility – though that doesn’t prevent the province from stepping in if there is a dire need of some sort.

For the past decade, even with the enormous mineral values beneath the ground, the federal level has not done near as much as it should have to provide clean water, upgrade homes, other infrastructure as well as social services, especially health and education in the five isolated First Nations communities – Webequie (850 people), Nibinamik (400), Neskantaga (250), Eabametoong (1,500) and Marten Falls (400). These are general on-reserve population figures and each community has an off-reserve population, too.

Currently, it is estimated that the value of mineral deposits – primarily chromite, nickel and copper – are worth about $60 billion in economic activity over a 30-year period. Jim Franklin, the former chief geoscientist at the Geological Survey of Canada, predicted at least $140 billion worth of chromite and base metals will be discovered in the Ring of Fire, and an additional $140 billion to $190 billion of gold are lying in the many greenstone belts to the west of the camp.

Cliffs Natural Resources abandoned the project on Wynne’s watch in 2013. Luckily, junior miner Noront Resources bought the resource and wants to build a nickel copper mine — the Eagle’s Nest — and develop one of the largest chromite deposits in the world, as well as build a ferrochrome processing facility somewhere in Northern Ontario (Thunder Bay, Timmins, Sudbury or Sault Ste. Marie), yet to be decided. None of this can happen without road access into the camp.

The United States has declared chromite on a list of 35 key minerals that are “vital to the nation’s security and economic prosperity.” In some years, up to 70 per cent of chromite production — a critical metal used for stainless steel, chemicals, corrosion resistant superalloys and a host of other manufactured products, including vital military weapons applications — comes from South Africa, a country with political stability issues. It would be a tremendous benefit for the huge American and global stainless steel industry to have significant chromite production based in a western jurisdiction.

Considering the billions of dollars in economic development opportunities and high paying middle-class jobs in a depressed part of the province, as well as the impoverished living conditions of the surrounding First Nations communities, you would have thought that the Cliffs abandonment would have given the Liberal government a sense of urgency?

Last August, the Wynne government inked an agreement with Marten Falls Webequie and Nibinamik to build east-west and north-south roads into this isolated mining camp. I have been told that Nibinamik has gotten cold feet so the east-west road is on hold for now. We should focus all our energies on the north-south road.

Currently, environmental assessments are about to start on the section of road to be built between Marten Falls and the provincial highway near Nakina. These environmental assessments — which really need to be fast-forwarded — take two years. The section of proposed road between Marten Falls and the Ring of Fire has had some baseline studies, but currently no environmental assessment is being done.

In the first 100 days of office, the new premier needs to ensure that the terms of reference be written immediately and that an environmental assessment on the northern section towards the Ring of Fire starts in the next few months.

One other issue must be highlighted. The vast majority of the known mineral deposits are on the ancestral territories of Marten Falls. This is based on family traplines and other traditional uses that might also include fishing and other pursuits. However, some other parts of this mineral region are also on the traditional traplines of Webequie and Attawapiskat.

Traplines are the major way the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry defines all First Nations traditional territories. These maps are highly confidential and really should be made public so junior explorers can clearly see on whose traditional territory they are working.

Under the Far North Act land use planning, competing claims over traditional territory are occurring. The new government might need to set up some sort of court or commission, possibly associated with NAN, to finally sort these overlapping claims out. However, the north/south road is clearly on the ancestral territories of Marten Falls.

Like non-Aboriginal communities, the isolated First Nations reserves of the Ring of Fire are all very distinct, individualistic and have quite different histories. The new premier and the media need to recognize these issues and differences. No one individual community represents all of NAN’s 49 members. Should the opposition of one or two communities with very tiny populations — and a more controversial “political agenda” — be enough to slow down or stop multiple mine projects worth billions of dollars to both the regional and provincial economies?

We don’t expect total agreement on controversial projects in non-Aboriginal communities. We base decisions on the greater good for the majority of people. The same political yardstick should be used in the Ring of Fire.

One final issue that must be addressed in Marten Falls is the need for a community centre, which they have been lobbying for without success for many years. The cost of about $6 million to $8 million is a pittance and could be easily funded from the Ontario Heritage Fund. Considering the provincial government spent $47 million to subsidize electric vehicles in 2017 — none of which are built in this province — that included the $150,000 Tesla and the $1.1 million Porsche 918 Spyder, I am absolutely appalled at the tone deafness of the Wynne Liberals. That centre would be a tremendous boost of moral for Marten Falls, a community that could become a gateway into the Ring of Fire and which has been under a boil water alert for many years.

The Ring of Fire mineral deposit was discovered in 2007 and there has been no mine development. In contrast, the equally isolated territory of Nunavut has built two gold mines (Agnico-Eagle’s Meadowbank and TMAX Resoures’ Doris) and one iron ore operation (Baffinland’s Mary River) in some of the most hostile terrain on the planet. A fourth gold mine (Agnico Eagle) should be in operation in 2019 and junior miner Sabina Gold and Silver Corp. has been given continued development approvals by the Nunavut Impact Review Board.

Agnico Eagle’s Meadowbank gold mine, which started production in 2010, has made a considerable impact on the territory’s economy. A study reported that the mine contributes about 15 per cent to the territory’s GDP and employs more than 300 Inuit at an average wage of $107,000 a year — the foundation of an Inuit middle-class.

Agnico Eagle annually spends about $5 million on extensive internal skill training programs to help Inuit advance in the workforce and generates $280 million yearly in local business procurement. And royalties will be flowing to the Inuit through their umbrella organization, the Nunavut Iunngavik Inc.

Patrick Tagoona, president of Nunavut Investments Ltd., stated in a Nunatsiaq News article, that people have trouble finding parking spaces in Baker Lake, the closest community to the Meadowbank mine, due to all the new trucks bought by mine workers. Workers are taking vacations in southern Canada and giving their children a strong reason to stay in school. Sustainable mining operations in northern Canada have in effect created an Indigenous middle-class and that is the most powerful form of reconciliation there is – economic.

Roads to riches connecting isolated First Nations

Aside from Webequie and Marten Falls which will hopefully be connected by the Ring of Fire north/south road, there are 30 other isolated First Nations communities scattered throughout the Far North. Seven of these communities are on the James Bay coast. Connecting them will be costly due to the prevailing muskeg that is difficult to build on. I am only going to focus on the 23 communities in the far northwest that are located on the same Canadian Shield geography that Sudbury is on.

Due to global warming, the usefulness of the winter roads that are constructed every year are becoming much less dependable for the transport of bulk commodities that would be very costly to fly in.

A very economical solution that northerners could do themselves – as opposed to hiring high-priced southern engineering firms – is building forestry roads that are commonly used in the forest industry to economically haul out timber.

Hartley Multamaki, vice president of Green Forest Management, who has been directly involved in planning and constructing of a substantial amount of these types of roads in Northern Ontario, said a rough estimate for primary forestry road construction, which is solid enough for huge trucks, would be around $250,000 per kilometre. The ultimate cost could be higher because of obstacles like river crossings, swamps and access to aggregates.

So taking that estimate, the cost of building 1,100 kilometres of forestry road through standard Canadian Shield geography in northwestern Ontario would be about $275 million. This “proposed” route would start north of Red Lake and include the communities of Pikangikum, Poplar Hill, Deer Lake, Sandy Lake, Keewaywin, Muskrat Dam, Sachigo Lake and sharply veer east to include Bearskin Lake, Big Trout Lake (KI), Wapekeka and end up in Kasabonika.

Add in an additional $125 million for the previously mentioned obstacles. So for $400 million, you could economically connect a large number of isolated communities. Not an earth-shattering sum.

Obviously, the First Nations would be thoroughly consulted on the best routes and during the two-year Environmental Assessment period, the government must provide training programs to ensure the local communities would benefit from the road construction, bridge building and long-term road maintenance contracts.

The other isolated Aboriginal communities could eventually be linked to this “proposed” road for an additional estimate of about $500 million — I am factoring in some inflation and possible slightly longer distances.

In addition, road connection would significantly lower the cost of food, building materials and other supplies as well as open up some the richest unexplored geology in the province. There are many promising gold exploration sites along the numerous east/west greenstone belts between the Manitoba border and the Ring of Fire.

A project that gives a taste of the mineral potential outside of the Ring of Fire is Northern Superior’s TPK property, which is adjacent to Neskantaga. CEO Tom Morris has excellent relations with the First Nation community. One historic drill core indicated 25 g/t over 13.5 metres, which is a great showing.

Geologist David Beilhartz, who has more than 30 years of experience and currently freelances for various clients including Eric Sprott, a well-known mining investor, and is on the board of directors for the junior feels the TPK property is one best grassroots exploration properties in Canada today.

As most junior explorers and prospectors will say, “the best way to find a mine is build a road.” A modern Aboriginal version of former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s (1957-1963) Road to Resources program to construct both vital infrastructure to connect isolated communities as well as enable easier access for the exploration and development of mineral resources and the ensuing economic prosperity.

Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant, freelance mining columnist and owner/editor of

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