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Province, Aroland First Nation have traction on a Ring of Fire road agreement

Northwest First Nations provided with road improvement, training dollars for future mine development
Ginoogaming Chief Sheri Taylor speaks June 18 in Greenstone as Premier Doug Ford; Will Bouma, Indigenous affairs and northern development parliamentary assistant; and Greg Rickford, Indigenous affairs and northern development minister, look on. (Screen capture)

Greenstone has been long regarded as the gateway to the Ring to the Fire — the logistical crossroads, business and training hub for any future mine development in the James Bay region.

Premier Doug Ford made his second trip in nine months to the rural northwestern Ontario municipality this week to deliver training and infrastructure dollars, and smooth over relations with First Nations that may be on the fence about development in the Far North.

In a June 18 media event, streamed on the premier’s YouTube channel, the province signed letters of confirmation with Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek, Aroland First Nation, Ginoogaming First Nation, and Long Lake #58 First Nation that involve road upgrades to Highways 584 and 11 starting this summer, and release $1.9 million funding for Indigenous skills training related to regional mine development and $2 million to build the Migizi Plaza Rest Stop.

The investments were portrayed by those dignitaries as transformational and life-changing, and came across as a stage-setter for a bigger upcoming announcement this fall that will substantially advance development of a road to the Ring of Fire. 

Ford said the investment in Greenstone will create the conditions for First Nation communities to “thrive, prosper and grow.”

“We’ve blazed a new trail,” he said.

In calling the agreement and funding “absolutely massive,” Ford said the deal with the four First Nations will drive local economic development, strengthen the region, provide access to critical minerals, and better connect First Nations to the provincial highway system.

“We’re gonna change lives.”

If any future mine development occurs in the region, Ford said the government has to put First Nations first.

In his remarks, Aroland Chief Sonny Gagnon said there is common ground to be found in growing healthy communities. 

In taking a poke at Ring of Fire mine developer, Wyloo Canada, Gagnon said these investments and construction of the Migizi Plaza is a demonstration of what can be accomplished when communities, the province and proponents work together.

Aroland is a linchpin community with an important say in how mining activity in the Far North will go down. It’s geographically positioned at the southern terminus of a proposed north-south access road and will be near a transhipment point that will move mined material from the Ring of Fire to a processing plant in Sudbury.

Aroland is in talks with Queen’s Park to sign an agreement to start the first 80 kilometres of the proposed north-south road network to the Ring of Fire.

Gagnon hinted yesterday that good news pertaining to those discussions is just over the horizon. An announcement will be coming in mid-September in conjunction with Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations, two of the Ring of Fire road proponents.

“We’re going to be moving forward with the Ring of Fire.… It’s going to take time.” 

Gagnon remains miffed over Wyloo’s decision to select Sudbury as the future site of a nickel-dominant pCAM (precursor cathode active material) plant that would process Ring of Fire concentrated ore into a battery-grade material for the electric car makers.

Two weeks ago, he contended, via news release, that his community was not given a prior heads-up that this news was coming.

Gagnon, who was Aroland's chief during the Cliffs Natural Resources era in the Ring of Fire more than a decade ago, compared the actions of Wyloo Canada with that of the Ohio miner.

“I was kind of disappointed a couple weeks back that there was an announcement from some company (Wyloo) that wants to build the Ring of Fire without even saying boo to Aroland, but that’s another story.”

Gagnon said Cliffs “operated like … they could just come in and do what they please.” 

“Well, the strong message to Wyloo is that you can’t do it the American way to doing things in our backyard. You have to do it our way or the highway.”

In sending a message to Wyloo, Gagnon said the Greenstone investment and Aroland’s relationship with the newly commissioned Greenstone Gold Mine demonstrates what can be accomplished “when everybody works together to achieve what we want to achieve.”

For Ginoogaming Chief Sheri Taylor, there’s clearly more work to be done by government.

Though grateful for the training and capacity-building dollars, “our community is not starting at the same place, in the starting line, when it comes to Ontario’s focus on investments in Greenstone,” she said.

In delivering some stinging remarks, Taylor said she was attending the event “under duress,” adding government needs to do right by her people.

Her community invoked a state of emergency in May due to an increase in violence and drug- and alcohol-related crime.

There are long-standing grievances to be addressed over past land withdrawals related to historical industrial activities, as well as ongoing infrastructure problems in her community, she said, mentioning a bridge that’s in danger of collapse.

“Time and again we have shown Ontario how it can help us, but it never happens.”

In reminding all in attendance that they are standing in Indigenous territory, she slammed Mines Minister George Pirie, who was not in attendance, for recent interview remarks describing Northern Ontario as “largely empty and begging for exploration drill holes.”

“Our grandfathers are not begging for exploration holes and our lands are not empty.”

She emphasized that cabinet ministers must be “on board with reconciliation” and be respectful of these unresolved grievances.

Long Lake 58 First Nation Chief Judy Desmoulin said these investments offer a “ray of light” to area First Nations, building on the promise of the newly commissioned Greenstone Gold Mine.

The new open-pit mine, she said, gives tangible meaning to what economic reconciliation should look like, and praised mine general manager Eric Lamontagne for including First Nations at the early stage of development that translated to training and job placements.

“We are the gateway to whatever’s going to happen in the Ring of Fire, and we have to do this right as First Nation people,” in participating from the outset, she said, “not just be an add-on.” 

In her 40-plus years in leadership, Desmoulin said she’s witnessed great changes recently over a short period of time. Employment and training are important pieces of reconciliation to participate in the opportunities that are developing.

Desmoulin empathized with Ginoogaming’s plight, adding progress needs to be made in addressing substandard housing and infrastructure in Indigenous communities.

“Through these partnerships, all of this can happen.”