First Nation chiefs don't plan to sit on the sidelines without having a major say in how Far North mineral development unfolds in their territories.
For years, Aroland First Nation Chief Sonny Gagnon used to watch heavily-laden logging trucks head south and wonder where the wood was being processed.
This time he expects the manufacturing to stay, and he wants minerals extracted from the Ring of Fire to be processed or refined in his territory. That includes the one million tonnes of chromite concentrate that Cliffs Natural Resources wants to take offshore.
“That is what we're targeting,” said Gagnon.
First Nation leaders used the backdrop of the Prospectors and Developers annual mining show in Toronto to stake their own collective claims.
At a March 6 Queen's Park news conference, Gagnon and Marten Falls Chief Eli Moonias issued a position paper outlining their concerns and expectations of the massive chromite and nickel deposits in the James Bay lowlands.
They demanded a more rigorous environmental review of Cliffs' Black Thor chromite project and Noront Resources' Eagle's Nest nickel deposit. Both projects are undergoing separate federal assessments.
The chiefs said mine approvals must not be fast-tracked at the expense of conducting a more-transparent joint panel review, rather than the comprehensive assessment now underway, a process Gagnon called a “paper-driven” exercise.
Gagnon said his community of 325 is “pro-development,” but said the consultation process with First Nations is “inadequate.”
When Cliffs stages open houses in communities like Greenstone and Thunder Bay, Gagnon said his members question why Aroland is excluded.
“My elders are wondering how are they going to afford to go to these open houses if they're so far away. And the language they speak is not the language of our preference.”
Aroland stands to be a major benefactor from a proposed transloading point for ore coming south by truck or rail from the Ring of Fire.
The Exton railroad siding, adjacent to his community, is on the Canadian National Railway's main east-west line.
Aroland is part of a lobby group with the neighbouring municipality of Greenstone in jockeying with Thunder Bay, Sudbury and Timmins to land a proposed ferrochrome processing plant being proposed by Cliffs.
But before that ever occurs, Gagnon wants government support for First Nations to do their own environmental studies in lock-step with the fast-moving pace of industry.
“If we don't have it, then we're forced to slow it down by any means that we can.”
And if they're ignored, there will be no development. “We stand firm on that.”
Cliffs Natural Resources has scheduled its Black Thor mine to be in production by 2015, while Noront wants to produce nickel by 2016.
“We're being pressured by Cliffs around their project description on how they want to move and we have to act,” said Gagnon. “We're saying let's form this alliance and let's get moving.”
Other chiefs in northwestern Ontario are also forming a united front in pursuing an east-west transportation corridor connected to the Ring of Fire.
One day before Gagnon's press conference, four First Nation communities signed a pact in Toronto agreeing to work toward the eventual operation of all the supporting infrastructure, transportation and services for the mining companies.
In a statement, Eabametoong Chief Harry Papah said controlling the corridor means training, employment and business opportunities for his people.
“By taking control of our traditional homeland, we can ensure that our communities really benefit in meaningful and long-term ways from the potential development in the Ring of Fire.”
Aroland and Marten Falls favour a transportation corridor that was planned as a forestry road before the Ring of Fire was known to exist. The chiefs said it eliminates a bridge over the Ogoki River, avoids passing through a provincial park and will provide spinoffs for the communities.
The industry-proposed roads are on sacred ground that needs to be protected.
“It's viable,” said Gagnon. “We know the land and we know where the portages are.”
Gagnon said he's confident that a Ring of Fire railroad is an eventuality.
“We are going to build it and own it, that's coming.”
With their expectations outlined, Gagnon said the next step is to rally support from other chiefs and municipalities.
“I want to walk hand-in-hand with industry to tell government this is how we want to see this developed.”