Environmentalists in Ontario’s Ring of Fire: Inconvenient Truths – by Stan Sudol (December 1, 2020)

A recent commentary linking Neskantga’s water crisis to the proposed Ring of Fire mining development in Northwestern Ontario’s Far North made little sense except to further delay environmental assessments (EAs) for vital road infrastructure and enormous economic opportunities for the region’s impoverished Indigenous people.

First and foremost, the fact that Neskantaga – with an on-reserve population of slightly less than 300 people – has not had potable water for an astonishing 25-years is a national disgrace.

Almost 150 years ago, Canada was small little country of around five million people and was able to build the longest railroad in the world, at that time, from Ontario to British Columbia, through some of the harshest geography on the planet in less than five years – 1880-1885.

And yet today, a G-7 country with a $2 TRILLION economy is unable to fix ALL the broken water systems in First Nations’ communities across the country in a similar time-period?

Not only does this reflect on the incompetence inside the federal government but it also damages the country’s international reputation and demonstrates Trudeau’s “reconciliation mantra” as nothing but pious hypocrisy.

However, one can understand Neskantaga’s consistent opposition to the Ring of Fire mineral developments when their water quality issues have not yet been resolved. Considering one of the community’s key advisors is a committed former Greenpeace, anti-mining activist, I suspect that opposition will not disappear once their water crisis is finally over.

But should this tiny community – there are probably ten thousand high-rise buildings in the Greater Toronto Area with more people in them than on this reserve – be able to veto the economic and infrastructure initiatives of their larger FNs neighbours in the Ring of Fire who want road and sustainable mineral development to better their standard of living?

Perhaps it might be advantageous to highlight some inconvenient truths and unintended consequences of the actions of Canada’s mainstream, but increasingly strident environmentalists, who might not want the southern media, politicians and general population to know.

Ring of Fire Mineral Potential is Enormous

Dr. James Mungall is a professor of economic geology at Carleton University. He was Noront’s Chief Geologist during the discovery phase of exploration, but now has no financial conflict of interest related to the Ring of Fire. He is considered the top specialist in magmatic ore deposits in Canada and is well-respected globally. In a previous column in the Sudbury Star, Mungall estimated that the value of the chromite resources would be around $117 billion.

That does not include Noront’s nickel, copper PGM mine. Nickel is a key ingredient in electric vehicle batteries and most analysts predict that the metal will be in short supply as the auto sector transitions to this form of transport in the coming decades.

In fact, the potential for further discoveries in the Ring of Fire of nickel, rare earths, vanadium and other metals needed for the “green transition” society is embracing over the next few decades, that will lower global greenhouse gas emissions, is very high.

This new mineral district is often compared to the Sudbury Basin, the largest and longest producing mining region in Canada. The current amount of mineral resources found to date in the Ring of Fire ensures that production will provide multi-generational employment and economic opportunities for the surrounding Aboriginal communities.

In addition, the many mineral-rich, east-west running greenstone belts to the west of this massive deposit also has the potential of further discoveries of nickel, copper and other battery metals as well as gold as the geology is similar to the rich gold mining camps in Timmins, Kirkland Lake, Red Lake and the Hemlo district.

Ontario’s Northern Geography is Vast

First some geographic context is in order. Northern Ontario is vast. The territory above the French and Mattawa Rivers – the historic dividing line between Ontario’s north and south – encompasses roughly 85 per cent of the geography of the province. The distance between Windsor and Ottawa is 750 kms. while Kenora, almost at the Manitoba border, is 1,570 kms from North Bay.

The Ring of Fire is located about 540 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay – while flying another 340 kms will get you to the Indigenous community of Fort Severn on the Hudson Bay coast. The regional terrain in the mining camp encompasses Hudson Bay Lowlands (swampy peatlands/muskeg) and vast boreal forests to the west.

There are five isolated First Nations in the Ring of Fire, Eabametoong (1,500 on-reserve) Webequie (850 on-reserve), Marten Falls (400 on-reserve) – Nibinamik (400 on-reserve) and Neskantaga (250-300 on-reserve).

Each community has a reserve as well as a recognized traditional territory that is largely based on historic family traplines, hunting and fishing territories. The north/south route into the Ring of Fire is primarily on Marten Fall’s traditional territory. The Ring of Fire mining camp is partly on the traditional territories of both Webequie – the closest community to the mineral camp – and Marten Falls.

Neskantaga is about 130 kms up-river from the Ring of Fire and its traditional territories do not encompass any of the current mineral discoveries or the proposed north/south route, although they insist otherwise, to the consternation of most of the elders in Webequie and Marten Falls.

While previous announcements from that community tend to over exaggerate the possible negative impact of mineral development on Neskantaga, it might be worth noting that Canada’s oldest nuclear generating station is located at Pickering, Ontario, a mere 45 kms from downtown Toronto.

Any problem at that nuclear station would potentially affect millions of people. However, that risk is very, very low and there are many regulatory rules and oversight – as with mining in northern Ontario – to ensure public safety. In addition, the community of Parry Sound is 160kms south of Sudbury and experiences absolutely no impact from the current nickel mining operations from its northern neighbour.

Northwestern Ontario is 526,417 square kilometres with a population of about 231,000 people. In contrast, the size of southern Ontario is 140,000 square kilometres and holds the vast majority of the approximate 15 million people who call this province home. Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) is an Indigenous political organization representing the 49 First Nations across Treaty 9 and Treaty 5 regions of Northern Ontario and their membership population – both on and off-reserve is about 45,000 people.

The bio-diversity of the Boreal Forest and Hudson Bay Lowlands are somewhat limited as compared to the Carolinian Forests of southwestern Ontario or the rainforests of Indonesia and the Philippines. Under no uncertain terms does this “lower species diversity” give any resource company license to NOT respect the land and federal/provincial regulations require proper restoration plans when mining is completed.

Both Indonesia (Sulawesi Island) and the Philippines (Mindanao and Palawan Islands) are the largest producers of nickel in the world. The Philippines’ many islands encompass 300,000 square kilometres with 110 million people while Indonesia’s main nickel producing island of Sulawesi is 180, 681 kms with a population of 20 million.

The nickel mining in these tiny tropical islands are open pit, destroying a priceless bio-diversity that will never be replaced and many companies pay very little attention to restoration activities while some big developments are using or propose to use marine tailing deposal with its very detrimental impact of the rich underwater ecosystem surrounding these islands. In contrast, Noront’s underground nickel mine will have very low environmental impacts and its tailings will be put underground as well.

300km Gravel Road Not Panama Canal or Pyramids of Giza

However, a 300km two-lane gravel, north/south road needs to be built along with bridges to access the mineral deposits as well as provide much needed access to the outside world for Marten Falls and Webequie. The two communities are in support of and conducting environmental assessments on the proposed route which would lower the cost of food, building and other materials and avoid expensive flights to access medical care and visit off-reserve family members.

In addition, with climate change, the traditional winter road season, when heavy material and fuel oil are inexpensively shipped to these isolated communities, is becoming much shorter. There may come a time when these roads are no longer viable and the very expensive alternative is to fly all these materials into the communities.

And yet some environmentalists basically describe this much needed and wanted north/south road in such distorted hyperbole and paint a picture of dystopian environmental destruction.

They fail to mention two major railroads that were constructed over the Hudson Bay Lowlands – connecting Churchill, Manitoba in 1929 and Moosonee, Ontario in 1932 – which have not negatively impacted the vast swampy muskeg. Just a side note, the proposed gravel road will largely follow north/south running raised sandy eskers.

Marten Falls is currently working on the environmental assessment (EA) for a community access road south to the provincial highway system. Depending on which route is chosen the length will be between 190 and 230 kms. According to the Ontario government’s onerous rules, Marten Falls has to consult with 23 Indigenous communities – including Attawapiskat and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) – the city of Thunder Bay and other government agencies and interested persons. This is absolute bureaucratic “overkill”!

Attawapiskat is about 280 kilometres to the northeast while KI is around 370 kms to the northwest. This is akin Sudbury – a community of 160,000 people – consulting with Toronto to ensure those citizens are fine with the construction of a major road in my hometown.

Why are these excessive rules being inflicted on impoverished Indigenous communities? Or is this just another way of slowing down much needed development? Webequie also has the same onerous consultation requirements for a much shorter supply route from their community to the Ring of Fire site on their traditional territory.

Premier Ford recently passed legislation to shorten EAs for the proposed new subway in Toronto which is a much, much more complicated task due to population densities in the urban core. Up north, there is only bush and swamp! And we are not building the Panama Canal or the Pyramids of Giza! It’s only a two-lane gravel road and a few bridges! The mineral discoveries in the Ring of Fire were made in 2007 and we have been debating this road connection since then!

On a side note, the constant reframe about “declining” woodland caribou populations is disingenuous at best. FNs are allowed to hunt them. They may or may not be declining, however, they most certainly are not in any “danger of extinction.” To use Woodland caribou as your “charismatic” species to halt mining development and leave Indigenous people in abject poverty needing to deal with a host of detrimental social issues, is appalling.

After 130 years of mining in the Sudbury Basin, and throughout most of road-accessible northern Ontario, deer and moose are still a constant hazard on the highways and the bear populations have increased significantly since the Spring Bear Hunt was banned in 1998, having become a huge nuisance in cities like Sudbury and Timmins where a limited cull has been restarted.

Here are a few very simple questions that the media, politicians and the general public need to ask the environmentalists and their associates who delay or stop mining development: How many full-time, middle-class jobs have your organizations or actions created for impoverished Indigenous people. How have your initiatives helped Aboriginal children stay in school? How have your actions helped reduce the epidemic of child and young adult suicides in the isolated NAN communities?

A 2016 NAN document, (more recent statistics are not available) highlights the epidemic of child suicide rates throughout the isolated northwest. From 1986 to 2016, there have been more than 500 suicides across NAN First Nations. More than 70 were children aged 10-14 and nearly 200 were youth aged 15-20. These are among the highest child suicide rates in the world and do not include attempts.

First Nations – Mining Sector Success

One of the new major problems in Baker Lake, Nunavut, where Agnico Eagle has been mining gold for about a decade or so, is that there are not enough parking spaces in the town for all the half-ton trucks, the full-time, well paid-Inuit workers have purchased.

The company has helped grow an almost non-existent middle-class in Nunavut where the company roughly contributes 25% to the territory’s GDP. Agnico-Eagle has established numerous training programs committing to a long-term goal of ensuring that 50% of the workforce is Inuit while it works diligently to establish business opportunities for local supply and service companies.

In the Northwest Territories, the high-school graduation rates for the Indigenous children has significantly improved due to the simple fact that their parents have full-time jobs in the diamond mines and economic stability.

In a September speech at the official opening of IAMGOLD’s open-pit gold mine in Gogama, Ontario, Prime Minister Trudeau highlighted the importance of nickel and cobalt used in electric vehicles and solar panels and that “the mining sector is really important in building a better future for us all.”

He also stated that the mining project is part of Indigenous reconciliation due to the many jobs for members of the Flying Post and Mattagami First Nations who have signed impact benefit agreements with the company.

This mining development is only the latest of many Indigenous collaborations with the sector that include, Vale’s Voisey’s Bay nickel mine in Newfoundland and Labrador, Glencore’s Raglan nickel mine in northern Quebec, and Cameco’s uranium mines in northern Saskatchewan, just to name a few examples.

In 2019, Ontario paid out $24.8 million to some of the 31 FNs who have signed on to a revenue sharing deal with the province while the Cree on the Quebec side of James Bay have greatly benefited from hydro and resource development on their traditional territories and have built prosperous middle-class communities that you would normally see in southern Ontario. This is in stark contrast with Attawapiskat and other Aboriginal communities on the Ontario side of James Bay.

The Tahltan Nation (about 4,000 members) in northern British Columbia’s relatively isolated, mineral-rich ‘Golden Triangle’ have also collaborated successfully with the mining sector. If there is a template that the Ring of Fire communities could follow, this is certainly it. Over the past few years, the main highway has been paved, a new high-voltage transmission has been built and the upgrading of ocean port facilities in Stewart have all benefited the expanding exploration and mining sectors.

Founded in 1985, Tahltan Nation Development Corporation (TNDC) successfully negotiated with mining companies on their traditional territories and is now the largest Western Canadian, First Nations-owned and operated heavy construction company.

With about 70% of the mineral-rich Golden Triangle in Tahltan Territory, the continued prosperity of the Indigenous peoples is assured due to three active mines – Brucejack Mine, Pretivm; Red Chris Mine, Newcrest Mining Ltd; and Silvertip Mine, Coeur Mining (operations temporarily suspended)- and about 50% of provincial junior exploration taking place on their land.

I recall listening to Jerry Asp, one of the original founders of the TNDC say that unemployment almost went down to almost zero around 2006 when the sector was booming. Extensive training was provided by the mining companies and provincial government to ensure as many Indigenous people as possible could take advantage of the opportunities.

Two Billion More People and MiningWatch Proposes Recycling

According to the International Energy Agency, there could be 245 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the planet by 2030. Elon Musk is having “nickel nightmares” as there might be significant shortages of this essential metal for the battery packs that go into EVs and he is imploring the mining sector to sustainably produce more of this needed raw material.

Yet at a recent MiningWatch Canada conference, the basic message was to recycle more and reduce energy demand. In addition, they stated that the earth’s metal resources were “finite”, and we might run out of the basic raw materials needed for this energy transition.

The fact that the sole reason for this organization’s existence is “to stop mining everywhere” might be contributing to this possible shortage, probably didn’t cross their collective minds and if they did allow the Canadian exploration sector do what it does so well, there might not be any metal shortages.

And the MiningWatch Canada crowd seemed to ignore a few salient points. Rural to urban migration is continuing at a rapid pace in Asia and Africa resulting in increased metal demand to build the required infrastructure. The current world population of 7.8 billion is expected to increase by an additional two billion by 2050, only 30 years from now. And the energy transition to electric vehicles as well as increased solar and wind initiatives will exponentially increase battery metal demand.

No amount of recycling can meet these types of enormous demands. And environmentalists seldom mention that it is not possible to recycle solar panels and wind turbines. In fact, the financial press is starting to report that we are starting to witness a second commodity super-cycle.

Only in Ontario – Such Smug Environmental Hypocrisy

Only in Ontario, can many of the most isolated and impoverished Indigenous communities – the majority of whom want development and training for middle-class jobs – be located above some of the richest geology on earth, in a jurisdiction where an media-savvy environmental movement is determined to prevent the construction of these desperately needed mineral deposits, by a world-class mining sector.

This mining sector follows one of the highest environmental standards in the world and many of the metals that have been found in the vast region, of relatively low bio-diversity, are essential for the green transition to lower global carbon emissions on a planet that is experiencing steady population growth.

Furthermore, the political elite in Ottawa and Queen’s Park need to remember that pre-COVID Ontario had the largest sub-national debt in the world. It can only be much, much worse now! Sustainable resource development in the Ontario’s isolated northwest will not only “turbo-charge” the sluggish regional economy but generate jobs and prosperity throughout the entire province as well as provide the desperately needed tax revenue to help sustain the health, education and other social programs that we all cherish and depend on.

And I might add one more important fact, Canada is the second largest land mass in the world, with pockets of extraordinary geology, and a smallish population of slightly less than 40 million people. If we can’t mine here, then where on earth does MiningWatch Canada and their environmental colleagues expect to extract the vital metallic resources the world needs?

In this case, the proverbial Road to Hell is paved with “good green intentions”.

One can only weep!

This essay was also published in the Sudbury Star: https://www.thesudburystar.com/opinion/columnists/accent-environmentalists-in-ontarios-ring-of-fire-inconvenient-truths

Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant, freelance mining columnist and owner/editor of: www.republicofmining.com