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Opinion: Government must make the case for mining in the Ring of Fire

Conservation scientists say success of mining projects depend on solid environmental assessments
James Bay Coast 2 (Ont Gov photo)
James Bay coast (Ontario government photo)

In this recent article in Northern Ontario Business, Minister Greg Rickford makes some highly spurious claims in his promotion of the government’s new Critical Minerals Strategy, not least about some fictional blanket opposition to mining among environmental organizations. The article confuses opposition to the current process in the Ring of Fire in Northern Ontario with opposition to all mining, and implies that mining in the Ring of Fire is necessary to produce electric vehicles for the green economy. However, neither of these presumptions hold water.

As the minister should be aware, it has become critical to the success of any mining project to have community buy-in, and a full understanding of environmental and social impacts before shovels hit the ground. Currently, neither of these exist for the Ring of Fire. While touting Ontario’s advantages, the minister fails to note that the Ring of Fire lies within the homelands of Indigenous peoples, many of whom oppose the project, and within a globally important carbon-rich landscape thanks to its deep and ancient peat soils. If we don’t properly assess what the carbon releases from mining will be, versus potential carbon reductions from things like electric vehicles, we are driving blind.

Of course, communities, scientists, and civil society organizations also have concerns about impacts on some of North America’s largest wild rivers that have their headwaters in the Ring of Fire, and on the intricate water systems within these peatland systems generally. Mining for critical minerals may be a contribution Ontario is well positioned to make to address climate change, but Ontario hasn’t shown the public any economic assessment to demonstrate that mining in the intact peatlands of the Ring of Fire area is a necessary part of acquiring these minerals.

There may be no green economy without minerals. However, there is also no green economy without responsibly acquiring these minerals through increased mineral recycling, through technological advances that allow for reclaiming more of these minerals from existing mining operations, and maybe from some new mines, but only after doing the necessary assessments to show that we need these mines, they are in the right areas, and they’ll provide a net benefit.

Overall, Ontario will only be able to boast an environmentally responsible mining sector if mining projects are based on a careful assessment of net benefits and impacts. Simplistic boosterism isn’t going to solve the climate crisis or get communities onboard with new mines and roads. A solid scientific assessment of risks and benefits, and an equitable process with First Nations that respects their jurisdiction, is the only credible recipe for success.

Constance O’Connor, PhD Conservation Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society Canada

Justina Ray, PhD President and Senior Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society Canada