The Ontario government could be playing with fire against First Nations leading to a potential confrontation over one of the province's richest mineral finds ever.
The eve of Cliffs Natural Resources announcement of the location of a likely ferrochrome smelter in Ontario, Aboriginal leaders said Northern Development and Mines Minister Rick Bartolucci was attempting to make a last-minute deal with First Nations to head off growing opposition to the multi-billion-dollar chromite mine and refinery project.
In a May 8 release, Aroland First Nation Chief Sonny Gagnon said Bartolucci arranged a “secret meeting” to get his community and Marten Falls First Nation onside the Far North development which is advancing toward the feasibility stage of evaluation.
Gagnon said he won't cut any side deal with the government without the other Matawa tribal council chiefs on board.
“After ignoring First Nations for months, Ontario thought they could divide and conquer us by holding an 11th hour meeting and making a few promises without our fellow Matawa chiefs present,” said Gagnon. “Ontario needs to deal with First Nations first rather than simply taking orders from Cliffs. We want the refinery in Aroland territory and we want the highest standard of environmental review for the project.”
Marten Falls claims their traditional lands are where the Ring of Fire chromite deposits are located, while Aroland is located next to a critical proposed intermodal facility at Exton in northwestern Ontario.
The chiefs argue that the current federal comprehensive environmental review of Cliffs Natural Resources Black Thor project in the Ring of Fire area of the James Bay lowlands, is a “paper process” that doesn't go far enough.
Angered about the lack of consultation with the Ontario government and Cliffs, they want a negotiated joint panel review process.
“We asked the Minister to pause the Cliffs announcement on the refinery, but Bartolucci said he had no control over Cliffs,” said Gagnon. “Who is really running the province? Our elected officials or an American mining company?”
A regional coalition of chiefs and mayors support the location of the Cliffs refinery in Aroland traditional territory, and its 400 to 400 jobs, but want a more extensive review to evaluate the open pit mine complex that they say will “fundamentally change the environment and way of life” for First Nations in the region.
The same day, Gagnon issued a release saying his 325-member community was launching a blame-and-shame campaign against Cliffs by resorting to tactics used against mining companies that extract and sell Third World blood diamonds.
They planned to portray the Ohio mining giant's project as “conflict chromite”and wanted to “shame the company as an Aboriginal and treaty rights abuser.”
“We plan to attack the Cliffs supply chain,” said Gagnon. “Without First Nations support we consider this conflict chromite and ferrochorme, and we will go to investors, steelmakers and steel users up and down the supply chain and ask them to commit to a conflict-free chromite and ferrochrome.”
Last week, following an unsuccessful meeting with Cliffs CEO Joseph Carrabarra in Thunder Bay, Gagnon went home and personally evicted a surveyor who claimed he was working for Cliffs on a proposed haul road to the Ring of Fire.
“I was the one who kicked him out. Without any agreements, nothing can provide,” said Gagnon in an emailed response.
“I stumbled upon their surveying equipment and immediately called the MNR (the Ministry of Natural Resources) and Cliffs. MNR didn't know whose it was and Cliffs said it was not theirs, so I picked them up. Went back the next morning and found a worker sitting there with replacement equipment. Asked him who he was working for and (he) said 'Cliffs.' That's when I told him to leave. He was co-operative and left.
“Now on May 1, Joe Carrabarra said that we have to build trust. How does one achieve that when something like this happens?”
It raises the spectre that pre-construction activity could be brought to a halt by action on the land by area First Nations.
On the same day as the refinery announcement, Cliffs officials were scheduled to appear in Toronto at a preliminary hearing of the Ontario Mining Commissioner to settle a dispute with KWG Resources-Canada Chrome over gaining access to the junior miner's staked Ring of Fire rail corridor.