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Ring of Fire: Homeland or frontier?

Mining companies cast covetous eye on First Nations ancestral lands

David Paul Achneepinseskum is CEO of Thunder Bay based Matawa First Nations Management. It is a tribal council of nine Ojibway and Cree First Nations in northern Ontario. "Environment is the number one concern," he says. (Photo courtesy of Matawa First Nations Management)

It’s an open question if a mineral rich region in northern Ontario, 450 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, will see development worth $60 billion according to mining experts.

The 5,000 square kilometre crescent-shaped resource-rich area, includes nickel, chromite (used for stainless-steel), zinc and copper, is known as the Ring of Fire. The name was tapped by a mining executive who was a fan of singer Johnny Cash and his song, “Ring of Fire.”

The proposed developments promise to be contentious among First Nations peoples and mining interests, while the province looks at spending $1 billion in mostly road infrastructure supports. The region includes several remote First Nations communities with mixed opinions on proposed mining developments.

Speaking of the north, lawyer and former British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Thomas Berger once wrote, “For one group it is a frontier, for the other a homeland.” [Can the two be reconciled to see economic development while protecting land, water, fish and animal habitat?]

Ring of Fire is in the Treaty 9 James Bay Lowlands region, a mostly undisturbed area that includes part of the largest forest on earth, the Boreal Forest. It includes rivers, lakes and wetlands. Scientists of the Far North Advisory Panel, reported to the provincial government that the far northern Ontario region “is one of the world’s largest, most intact ecological systems, reflecting a high level of ecological integrity and providing ecosystem services far beyond its borders.”

It is rich in at least 50 species of fish, like northern pike and brook trout. It is an important region for migratory birds, including at-risk bald eagles. It includes a declining population of caribou.

Indigenous people expect to be part of the discussion of what happens with any development on their ancestral land. They believe any mining development will proceed only with their support.

Tribal Council of nine First Nations: More than just jobs

“Environment is the number one concern,” said David Paul Achneepineskum, the CEO of Thunder Bay based Matawa First Nations Management (MFNM). “We live in an area that is pristine.” He says many people use Treaty 9 land for their livelihood, including fishing and hunting.

“How do we look out for our people?” Achneepineskum asks.

MFNM is a tribal council made up of nine Ojibway and Cree First Nations in northern Ontario.

Achneepineskum says MFNM “wants to consent to whatever development happens” to their territory. He expects to see a joint process with the provincial government in addressing the many issues about potential mining development such as roads to isolated First Nations communities, social issues, infrastructure, clean water and housing.

“These are things that have to be part of the discussion,” Achneepineskum says.

“I think there’s a willingness from the province to have a joint decision-making process. It has to be resolved,” he says. “Our First Nations live in poverty.”

A decision must be made on two proposed roads leading to an initial planned nickel mine, Noront Resources Eagle’s Nest mine. Three isolated First Nations stand to get year-round road access if the two roads are built, but there is not full support.

“Not all First Nations are on side,” Achneepineskum says.

He talks of the need for an economic benefit beyond providing employees for proposed mining operations. Achneepineskum wants to see “revenue sharing” with local First Nations. “Why not have equity in any development?” he says.

The Biggest Mining Player in the James Bay Lowlands

Noront Resources, a Toronto based company that owns about 85 per cent of all claims in the mineral rich Ring of Fire region of the Treaty 9 James Bay Lowlands.

Alan Coutts, Noront’s CEO, says he is committed to working with First Nations in the region. He supports their involvement in the environmental assessment (EA) process.

Chief Bruce Achneepineskum of Marten Falls First Nation (left) after signing a Project Advancement Agreement with Noront Resources CEO Alan Coutts. (Photo courtesy of Noront Resources

The recommended east-west road linking Noront’s proposed Eagle’s Nest mine to Nibinamik and Webequie First Nations and a separate road linking Marten Falls First Nation to the mine are seen as critical in moving the project forward. Noront expects to begin to see road construction to be completed by 2022 when the Eagle’s Nest mine opens. It’s a main focus of Premier Kathleen Wynne’s offer of $1 billion for infrastructure.

“Typically the mining company is the road proponent,” Coutts says in an interview. Instead, he describes how the province wanted to “make the communities the proponent.”

The Neskantaga and Eabametoong First Nations have not consented to the road.

Coutts needs at least one of the roads to proceed. He says that it’s up to the First Nations to work out an agreement.

Coutts describes how Noront held many community consultations with First Nations.

“What is it you’re worried about?” he asked. “A lot of it was about water. We had a lot of concern about tailings.”

Tailings are mine refuse that can contaminate water and land. Their disposal is an important part of preventing environmental harm to the region.

He points out the “legacy issues," concerns about perceived damage to land and water after the proposed Eagle’s Nest nickel mine closes after at least 11 years of operation.

Coutts says Noront will address those concerns so the mine has a smaller footprint even though it means a greater cost.

“We took feedback (from First Nations) and factored that into our project design,” he said.

Noront will hire and train local First Nations employees to work at the Eagle’s Nest mine.

There are some examples in British Columbia of the province sharing revenue from mineral taxes with First Nations.

“This is a very relevant topic right now,” Coutts says. “This is a decision for (the Ontario) government. Sounds like a pretty good idea to me.”

To local communities and environmentalists who follow resource development, a well developed EA is a critical step towards protecting the land, water, fish, birds and animal habitat.

Coutts talks of minimizing the effects of the proposed Eagle’s Nest mine and future mines in the region. “At some point it does make sense to look at what those cumulative effects can be,” he said. “Everyone wants to see this done properly.”

Sharing mining revenues — maybe

In 2014 the province signed a regional agreement with local member Matawa First Nations.

“It is still the intent to negotiate the equitable sharing of the economic benefits of mineral and related development in the Ring of Fire area,” Michael O’Morrow said, of Ontario’s Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, in a written reply.

“These could include opportunities for equity participation and/or other forms of economic benefit that best suit the needs of communities,” O’Morrow said.

O’Morrow pointed to Ontario’s Action Plan for Reconciliation including an overall “approaches to enhance participation in the resource sector by advancing resource benefits sharing opportunities, including resource revenue sharing in the forestry and mining sectors.”

It’s the water

Jennifer Wabano of the Weenusk First Nation also wants to see a bigger role for community consultation.

She started a grassroots group, Omushkegowuk Women’s Water Council, to promote community-based efforts in planning for proposed mining development, in northern Ontario, impacting First Nations.

“Consultation does not stop at Chief and Council,” she said.

“Our main concern is the water,” Wabano said. “We can’t mess around with clean water.”

She favours the idea of revenue sharing for any proposed projects in the Ring of Fire.

“Can’t just have jobs,” Wabano said, citing the need to address social issues.

It remains to be seen if hiring local Indigenous people to work at proposed mines in the Ring of Fire will avoid charges, described in media reports, of racism against Indigenous workers at the nearby De Beers mine close to Attawapiskat.

A public interest group weighs in

Anna Baggio, the director of conservation planning with the Toronto-based public interest group Wildlands League, sees individual mining EAs as “piecemeal.” She points to one remedy, a process called “strategic environmental assessment.” It looks at a scale larger than any one proposed project.

Baggio says that before the provincial government approves projects, the province needs to look at the costs and the benefits to communities.

“Will the government meet all its commitments around Indigenous peoples, protecting the water, or climate…these are all carbon-rich peatlands we should be paying more attention,” Baggio says.

She says that these questions should be asked with everything done in the open so that proponents of mining can’t just say, “trust us, we are going to protect the land.”

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