The isolated, nickel-rich Ring of Fire, located 550 kms northeast of Thunder Bay, is the centre-piece of Ontario’s Critical Mineral Strategy. Discovered in 2007, this developing mining camp is going to save southern Ontario’s auto sector.
Automobiles and associated parts are Ontario’s largest exports and second largest nationally, after the oil sector. Over the past century, hundreds of thousands of middle-class jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in manufacturing activity have established the province as Canada’s economic powerhouse.
The move from gas powered engines to electric vehicles – one of the largest industrial transitions in North American history – must occur in record time if we are going to arrest climate change. However, this conversion cannot happen without an enormous increase in nickel, copper, lithium and other critical minerals that are used in the manufacturing of electric vehicles.
Auto sector analysts have estimated that half a trillion dollars will be invested in new EV and battery plants around the world by 2030 and Ontario needs to ensure that the province attracts its fair share if our continued prosperity is going to last.
Make no mistake, federal and provincial politicians are meeting with corporate executives around the world to ensure that many of those new investments will be in southern Ontario’s auto dependent communities and the proverbial “ace up their sleeve is guaranteed access to the geopolitically secure critical minerals in the Ring of Fire and other potential deposits across the province’s geologically rich north. Even the American military is now interested in funding mining projects in Ontario and across the country.
Ring of Fire – Critical Minerals Powerhouse
The two key players in the Ring of Fire are Noront Resources, taken over by Australian-based Wyloo Metals earlier this year and renamed Ring of Fire Metals and Canadian-owned explorer Juno Corp. Ring of Fire Metals owns the Eagle’s Nest nickel/copper/cobalt mine and has the financial backing of Australian mining magnate billionaire Andrew Forrest who also founded the world’s fourth largest iron ore producer Fortescue Metals Group.
Privately owned Juno Corp., the largest claim holder in the camp, was founded by Robert Cudney and named after the Normandy beach that was liberated by Canadians during World War Two. Cudney was also one of the founders of FNX Mining which is now owned by KGHM International and was also one of the recipients of the 2016 PDAC Dennis Award for the Bruce Channel gold discovery in Red Lake.
Wyloo Metal’s CEO Luca Giacovazzi has publicly stated that the Ring of Fire is a multigenerational camp with many more critical mineral discoveries that will position Canada as a green energy superpower for the next century. And with the company’s current reassessment of their Eagle’s Nest nickel/copper/cobalt mine, production could exceed 40 years or longer.
Juno Corp.’s highly experienced exploration team largely transitioned from the previous FNX Mining group, which have had a very successful track record of finding economical ore deposits around the world. They feel that the geologically-rich Ring of Fire camp holds many world-class deposits of nickel, copper, PGEs, vanadium and even gold.
And while much of the recent conversation in the Ring of Fire has been about nickel, copper and cobalt, we need to remember that the camp holds one of the highest grade and largest chromite deposits in the world. Dr. James Mungall is professor of economic geology at Carleton University and is considered one of the top specialists in magmatic ore deposits in Canada and globally. In a 2020 column in the Sudbury Star, he felt the economic value of the Ring of Fire’s chromite deposits were worth roughly $117 billion and could meet North American demand for this critical metal for at least 60 years.
Sustainably Clean ESG Nickel
Almost three years of COVID supply chain disruptions along with the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine have clearly demonstrated the importance of geopolitically secure sources of critical minerals for European and North American industry.
No western manufacturer wants to depend on Russian “blood nickel” for their batteries, or the “tainted nickel” from the two largest producers – Indonesia and Philippines – that destroy bio-diverse tropical rainforests, use carbon-generating coal for power and dump toxic tailings in the surrounding abundant coral seas habitat.
Without a doubt, these regions are unfortunately becoming “sacrifice zones”! Just some additional context needs to be highlighted. Indonesia has the fourth largest population in the world with about 270 million people while the Philippines stands at number 12 with approximately 110 million. There is enormous competition for land usage in these overpopulated countries.
Northern Ontario’s vast isolated north that includes both boreal forest and Hudson Bay Lowlands has, at maximum, 30,000 people – with many living off-reserve. In comparison to the tropical rainforests, Ontario’s northern regions have a much lower level of bio-diversity. Nickel production from this region would significantly help take some of the pressure off Indonesia and the Philippines.
Ontario’s mining sector is well-known throughout the world for its sustainable practices, restoration activities and consultations with First Nations. Mining is the largest private-sector employer of Indigenous people and mining developments routinely provide supply and service contracts to Aboriginal businesses.
Newmont Corp.’s Eleonore underground gold mine in the James Bay region of Quebec spends roughly $100 million a year on business contracts with Cree vendors. In 2020, Agnico Eagle spent $612 million (68% of total procurement) with Inuit firms at its open-pit gold mine in Nunavut.
In 2021, Agnico Eagle spent $327 million with Indigenous firms at its Detour Lake open-pit gold mine in northeastern Ontario on the traditional territory of Moose Cree First Nation, part of the Mushkegowuk tribal council.
Ring of Fire Metal’s Eagle’s Nest nickel/copper/cobalt mine will store all tailings back underground, ensure all processed water is recycled, and look at renewable energy solutions.
However, the James Bay Cree have built one the first Indigenous-owned power transmission lines back in 2001 to connect to Ontario’s clean energy grid and exit costly and unreliable diesel generation as well as provide power to DeBeer’s now closed diamond mine. Five Nations Energy should consider extending the line to the Ring of Fire and adjacent community of Webequie, ensuring clean hydro for the camp as well as providing decades of power revenues to the James Bay communities for worthy social and infrastructure initiatives.
Ring of Fire Metal’s will also target about $100 million in supply service contracts to Indigenous-led businesses and establish a training and employment centre for Aboriginals across the northwest.
Indigenous Politics and Traditional Territories
First Nations politics are complicated and like non-Aboriginal politicians have a diversity of opinion. If governments are waiting for 100 percent Aboriginal consensus on any particular resource project, they will never get it.
This diversity of opinion is clearly evident with the five isolated First Nations surrounding the Ring of Fire, – Marten Falls, Webequie, Neskantaga, Nabinamik and Ebametoong – all belonging to the Matawa Tribal Council. Aroland also belongs to this tribal council but is a road-accessed community and stands to economically benefit enormously, as the starting point of the proposed north/south road into the camp. While Matawa Tribal Council represents these communities along with three other road-accessed First Nations, on a number of initiatives, the true power lies in the individual communities and their traditional territories.
Traditional territories are the lands surrounding Aboriginal communities that have been used by them since time immemorial. These territories are based on community family oral histories, passed down by the elders through generations and more recently defined by the Provincial Community Based Land Use Plans. As the Supreme Court Delgamuukw judgment stated in 1997 these solemn oral histories are admissable in a court of law.
The Ring of Fire’s discovered mineral deposits as well as most of the north/south route – except for a short distance at the southern starting point that belongs to Aroland – are on the traditional territories of both Webequie and Marten Falls with a combined population of about 2,200 people. Webequie and Marten Falls are conducting an Indigenous-led environmental assessment for the north/south road and are very supportive of mining development as an economic development strategy for their peoples. Neskantaga – a community of about 250 people on-reserve and located roughly 130 kms up-river from the Ring of Fire – vehemently opposes the road and mine development.
Strangely, they refuse to release maps of their traditional territory while Webequie and Marten Falls have done so. Neskantaga has garnered enormous amounts of media attention, especially in the Globe and Mail and CBC Radio Thunder Bay, yet reporters seem reluctant to ask for their traditional territory maps, allowing the community to falsely claim they have a veto over development throughout an extensive region including the Ring of Fire.
Attawapiskat and Fort Albany – 270 kms to the east of the Ring of Fire are also demanding that the north/south road environmental assessments must stop and yet they also have no traditional territory in the region according to Webequie and Marten Falls who have repeatedly stated this fact in public documents. We also need to remember that tens of millions of dollars in resource revenue sharing are at stake in the first decade or so of mining. Whether those revenues are divided between two or four First Nations will have a huge impact on community budgets.
United Nations Declaration (UNDRIP)
Article #3 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) clearly states that First Nations have “… the right to freely pursue their form of ECONOMIC, social, and cultural development.” And UNDRIP article #20 states, “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and develop their political, ECONOMIC, and social systems or institutions, to be secure in the enjoyment of their own means of subsistence and development, and to engage freely in all their traditional and other ECONOMIC activities.”
All of this could be easily sorted out if the Ontario Mines or Natural Resources bureacrats publicly release the traditional territory maps, yet up to this point they have steadfastly refused. If there are conflicts over the exact boundaries of First Nation’s traditional territories than set up a tribunal and let’s get on with resolving this issue.
However, mineral development is not the only reason these roads need to be built. Global warming has significantly shortened the tradition winter road season when bulk materials were more cost affectivly transported. The isolation, lack of fresh food, timely access to medical care in southern hospitals, more economic opportunities and the expense of flying in just about everything are major reasons to built the north/south road.
Ironically, the southern media keep going to the same white, upper-middle class, university professors, left-leaning lawyers and other environmentalists – all who live in the GTA and have access to modern 21-century living conditions for commentary. These professionals feel they have the right to tell isolated Webequie and Marten Falls – the custodians of their traditional territories since time immorial what they should do.
It seems that the impoverished living conditions, isolation and lack of economic opportunities in these communities, along with some of the highest child suicide rates in the world, are less important issues to ENGOs than untouched wilderness. Shamefully, southern media seldom go to Chief Cornelius Wabasse of Webequie or Chief Bruce Achneepineskum of Marten Falls for their opinions.
Never Ending Environmental Assessments
In 2014, after spending about $550 million to buy, further explore and develop their Ring of Fire properties, Cliffs Natural Resources left the province in disgust due to the inability of both levels of government to build a road into the camp. They sold their project at a steep discount to Noront Exploration (Ring of Fire Metals) for around $27 million. Has the federal and provincial ministries of the environment not learned a painful lesson from that ordeal. We got a second change when Wyloo Metals – which has enormous financial clout – bought Noront and yet I fear we are blowing it again.
We are not building the pyramids of Giza or the Panama Canal. It’s a simple, roughly 350km industrial gravel road and a couple of bridges. It took Canada less than five years from 1880 to 1885 to build the longest railroad in the world at the time, from Ontario to Vancouver, through some of the harshest geography on the planet – the rocky mountains of British Columbia. It was an astonishing engineering feat for a small little country of roughly 4.5 million people. Our ancestors must be spinning in their collective graves at the site of a rich and modern G-7 country with almost 40 million people not capable of building a short gravel road!
During World War Two, Canada and the United States built the 2,600 km. Alaska highway, from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska, in around eight months! We are in a climate change emergency. Both Trudeau and Biden have demanded that by 2035, all automobiles must be electric. That is only 12 years away.
Earlier this year, Natural Resources Minister Jonathon Wilkinson was publicly complaining that it takes too long to permit a mine. Does he forget that just a few years ago as the environment Minister he brought in Bill 69 which increased regulatory burdens on the federal Impact Assessment Act making it even longer to build a mine or road for that matter? Bill 69 is a predatory federal overreach, by Liberal environmental zealots, into provincial resource jurisdiction that will ultimately be settled in the Supreme Court. And without a doubt, this bill creates enormous uncertainty about all resource projects across the country and will add substantive delays to the construction of critical mineral projects including the Ring of Fire.
Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne and his provincial counterparts are meeting with many international auto and battery executives, using Canada’s critical minerals and no doubt, the huge potential of the nickel/copper rich Ring of Fire as a primary reason to build their gigafactories here. Yet a top federal bureaucrat – in a recent Globe and Mail article – shared his doubts on whether the Ring of Fire Road and future mines ‘might or might not’ be built. I bet that was surprising news to Wyloo Metals who invested $616 million, not quite a year ago, to build a mine.
This may be a bit crude, but there is a lot of sucking and blowing going on!
You can’t have federal and provincial politicians running around the world saying invest your billions for the next generation of electric vehicle manufacturing and ensuring middle-class jobs and future prosperity for the 15 million people who live in Ontario and not fast-forward a fairly short 350km road to one of the most promising new nickel/critical minerals camps in the world.
The federal government immediately needs to bring in legislation declaring that the Ring of Fire Road is a green national infrastructure priority, due to the climate change emergency and environmental assessments must be done in a thorough but significantly shortened time frame with explicit end dates. The federal government should also specifically allocate the funds to build the road and start establishing the logistical framework with the province to get this vital infrastructure built. And for good measure, both levels of government should start the construction of the first phase – from Aroland to Marten Falls – within 12 months! That would send a positive signal to the global auto sector that Canada/Ontario is committed to the development of the Ring of Fire.
Ontario’s Mines Ministry – Bureaucratic Disfunction?
One final issue that needs to be addressed is the incompetence of the bureaucrats in Ontario’s own Ministry of Mines on the issue of granting exploration permits.
First a little personal background. I worked in various Queen’s Part ministries from 1998-2002 as a communications consultant in the bureaucracy – not the political staff – a key distinction.
I started at Mines and Northern Development, spent some time at the old Ontario Native Affairs Secretariat when it was part of the Attorney General and my last significant posting was at Finance. I once asked an Assistant Deputy Minister at Finance if there would be a deficit. He smugly replied: what do you want?
There is an extraordinary amount of unelected and unaccountable power among a group of people who are almost impossible to fire. Even former Premier David Peterson told me how tough it was to relocate civil servant jobs to northern Ontario as the resistance inside the bureaucracy was very intense. He obviously fought back hard enough to successfully transfer a few ministry divisions to the regions. I wish Queen’s Park journalists would pay closer attention to Deputy Ministers and Assistant Deputy Ministers as these are the individuals who can promote or stop government policies, even when someone like current Premier Ford has a “super majority” from the people of Ontario.
I recently attended the Ontario Mining Association’s annual “Meet the Miners” event – the first since COVID. It’s a pleasant evening of Queen’s Park politicians, political staff and bureaucrats chatting with industry people from various companies that have producing mines in Ontario.
New Mines Minister George Pirie is straight out of “central casting” for his role. Born in Timmins, he had a long career in the minerals sector culminating as CEO of Placer Dome Canada. His father worked in the Timmins Dome gold mine for 47 years and his son currently works for Newmont Corp. in the same city. He has previously highlighted the potential trillion-dollar value of minerals in the Ring of Fire. While Pirie gave an impassioned speech about how mining can transform people’s lives, especially First Nations, I was more concerned about huge problems about mining exploration permitting that his predecessor Greg Rickford failed to resolve.
It’s ticking time bomb as mineral exploration is the lifeblood of the industry and without having the ability to easily drill holes in the ground or quickly change targets, to find new deposits, the industry faces huge challenges.
The big problem is the time it takes to get permits approved. One junior explorer that I have closely been following for well over a decade, finally got their permits approved after 23 months of needless delays, for just 17 drill targets. That is absolutely insane and to be fair, it was a worse-case scenario. Still, Ring of Fire Metals routinely has to wait 6 months or longer for their permits. Juno Corp. has a roughly similar timeline. I am sure a few off-the-record conversations in northern Ontario’s tight-knit exploration sector would highlight many, many similar horror stories.
Juno Corp. went to court, as the co-defendant to the crown, concerning their delays – largely due to Attawapiskat’s attempts to slow down and “game” the exploration process that needs First Nation approval – and basically won their case. There has been a “modest” improvement in time-lines for their permits but still not good enough.
Bureaucrats are the main cause as they are terrified of pushing back on unreasonable demands from Attawapiskat, a community that steadfastly wants to delay or stop Ring of Fire exploration with needless concerns about environmental impact about drill holes in the ground, the size of pop cans, detrimentally affecting a community that, as I mentioned before is 270 kms east of the targets!!
One can only guess about the true number of drill holes – in the tens of millions at the very least – peppering the Sudbury Basin or the other established mining camps in Timmins, Kirkland Lake, Red Lake and Hemlo over the past hundred years with virtually no environmental effects.
When I confronted a bureaucrat at the “Meet the Miners” event about that 23-month delay for that one junior who ended up pulling their exploration dollars out of Ontario and using them in Quebec instead, this individual had the audacity to ask me what I would do better. Obviously, the correct response always comes a few hours later when the person is long gone. I should have said “I would fire you and find someone who understands the industry”!
If there is a Minister who understands the importance of junior exploration, it certainly is Minister Pirie and his competent keen staff. But as this bureaucrat has clearly shown, he really has his work cut out for him!
Hudson Bay Lowlands – James Bay Cree and Their North/South Road
There are roughly 9,000 people living in the coastal Indigenous communities on the James Bay coast alone. (Moosonee, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Moose Cree). An industrial transmission line connected to Ontario largely clean power system has been built to take these communities off diesel generation. These communities are also working on a north/south road to end their isolation and hopefully generate more economic opportunities.
Yet some of these same communities vehemently oppose the Marten Falls, Webequie sponsored north/south road into the Ring of Fire. In the 1930s, railroads had been built to Moosonee and to Churchill, Manitoba, which itself has a number of First Nations communities nearby.
And let’s not forget that Attawapiskat had approved DeBeers open pit diamond mine. That fact has not been lost on Webequie and Marten Falls who did nothing to oppose that project from moving forward and benefiting that community. Around 125 people from Attawapiskat were employed at the DeBeer’s mines and I recall reports of about $300 million or more in supply and service contracts were funneled through that community.
Unfortunately, the Impact Benefit Agreements were confidential and if there were any “inappropriate” practices, that prevented more substantive benefits for the entire community, we will never know.
While Attawapiskat should have gotten more benefits from that project, we also need to recognize that it was only a twelve-year mine life and the ability to positively transform and benefit a community in such a short period of time was not possible.
Mineral development in the Ring of Fire will be multigenerational. The Eagle’s Nest mine life is estimated to be around 20 years with current 43-101 regulations. It is open at depth and most feel production will easily be double that figure at the very least.
Even with all this past and present industrial activity and significant Indigenous population settlements, Ontario’s environmental organizations run around like proverbial “chicken littles” screaming at the top of their collective lungs that any mines built – to dig the critical minerals vital for the decarbonization of the world’s transport sector – will destroy this truly vast ecosystem.
Another issue that the environmental movement likes to sensationalize is the fact that the entire 5,000 square kilometer Ring of Fire is one huge mineral camp that will be developed. Not even close to the truth! The footprint of the proposed Eagle’s Nest mine is about 1 square kilometer.
Even if 10 new mines were discovered, the amount of land used is a proverbial pin-prick on the vast Hudson Bay Lowlands which encompasses roughly 320,000 square kilometres – about the same size as Norway and considerable larger than the United Kingdom!
Ring of Fire Critical to Ontario Economy and Prosperity
Mines are where you find them. We can’t dig a hole in downtown Toronto and find nickel deposits!! While recycling will eventually contribute “some” material, we need to build the vehicles first and wait at least a decade or so before they are obsolete. Before COVID, yearly global auto production was almost 100 million.
Mineral analysts around the world routinely state that currently, there is not enough nickel, copper and other critical minerals to build the electric vehicles we need to decarbonize and stop global warming. Some estimates indicate that we need an additional 300 mines at the very least over the next few decades.
Planet earth recently reached 8 billion inhabitants. We will probably see an additional two billion more people join us over the next three decades. As the world continues to urbanize and industrialize, the demand for critical minerals will not just be for the transport sector.
If we don’t find enough nickel and other critical mineral deposits than the ensuing global warming impacts will affect the Hudson Bay Lowlands far far more negatively than the tiny footprint of a few mines in the Ring of Fire.
After the colossal failure of building LNG processing facilities on Canada’s West coast – a missed opportunity that has cost this country billions in lost tax revenues and probably tens of thousands of jobs – the world is waiting and watching to see how the road into the nickel and critical minerals-rich Ring of Fire progresses.
If we cannot build this short and fairly simple infrastructure initiative in a timely manner – over the next two or three years, hence the need to start on the southern section within 12 months – not only do we risk seeing Ring of Fire Metals (Wyloo) leave the province but tens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars in electric vehicle gigafactories and supply plants may never be built.
And why would they choose southern Ontario over American jurisdictions that offer many financial incentives that we do not, if we cannot guarantee geopolitically secure supplies of critical minerals to these potential companies, largely due to bureaucratic delays.
Ontario and Canada – the second largest geologically rich land mass in the world – have a moral obligation to provide the West with sustainably sourced critical minerals to stop global warming.
The fact that sustainable mineral development of the Ring of Fire will economically transform the surrounding impoverished First Nations with middle-class jobs and business activities as well as ensure continued new auto sector investment in southern auto focused cities is an astonishing win for the entire province for generations to come.
The Ring of Fire road needs to be given the utmost priority. We can’t build this green strategic infrastructure soon enough!
Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant and freelance mining columnist who owns/edits RepublicOfMining.com – a mining aggregator news site.
Previous Ring of Fire Essays by Stan Sudol
Road to Ring of Fire must be green national priority (Sudbury Star – October 27, 2021)
Environmentalists in Ontario’s Ring of Fire: Inconvenient truths (Sudbury Star – December 19, 2020)
May 2022 TV Ontario’s The Agenda Ring of Fire Episode: