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First Nation concerns dominate Ring of Fire forum

Education, impact to Indigenous communities hot topics at Mining Science Café in Sudbury focusing on development plans

The Ring of Fire has been touted as a massive economic windfall for the province and the country, but there are serious questions over how it will benefit Indigenous people and community development.

A standing-room-only crowd packed a private dining room at the Tap House Northern Grill and Pub in Sudbury on April 24.

The panel included Alan Coutts, president and CEO of Noront Resources Ltd.; Roy Slack, president of Cementation; and Aime Dimatteo, director general of FedNor.

While there were many questions about roads, ecology, mine structure and economics, questions over the impact to Indigenous communities, employment opportunities and even education and substance addiction garnered the most attention.

One audience member pointed out that half the population of one of the northwest communities had substance abuse problems, and many other communities are impoverished, causing a power imbalance with treaties not being met.

Dimatteo said they are addressing this by empowering the communities so they can lead in decision-making. The federal government, he said, has given more than $124 million for more than 200 projects to build capacity. However, he said, they are lacking human resources.

“We are providing the funding to build capacity so they can hire their own people, train their own people, so when decision time comes, you can make an informed decision.”

Coutts said Noront and the other partners knew First Nation input was critical, so they provided funding and had the communities tell them where to build infrastructure like roads and broadband, and will do the same with electrification and other components.

As well, they have community leaders at the executive level to make decisions over what would be best for their people.

“As a company, we are not government. They have obligations and we have to respect that,” he said. “We try to get perspective from those individuals as part of our core management for both our team and how we do things as a company.”

In a related question, it was pointed out that there were few Indigenous people at the management level of mining companies making decisions, causing concern over how much power people really had over project decisions.

Slack said that, in their experience, with projects like Diavik in the Northwest Territories, the challenge is getting people to go from trades to management and executive. Part of the problem is education.

“Some of the high schooling some of our partners get doesn't qualify them for some of the engineering schools,” he said. “We've begun to talk to some of the schools about the criteria, and what are some of the things we need if you are going to be an (engineer).

“Recognizing the gap is the first step. Then creating the desire to fill that gap is the next step.”

Many youth in the remote First Nation communities near the Ring of Fire have to go to Thunder Bay for their education, and completing secondary school is mandatory for a job in the mines. One question was about any plans to help build a secondary school in the Far North. Dimatteo said the government is working to develop a school system closer to the homes of the students. However, he didn't say that would include a physical high school.

“Many of these communities are small, and very far from each other,” he said. “So even if we said we are going to put in a high school, it wouldn't be in one of the First Nation communities.”

The federal and provincial governments are talking with the communities over the jurisdiction and ownership of the education of their people, and Dimatteo said he can see progress on education lead by the First Nations, but nothing specific for the Ring of Fire – yet.

Another concern was the possibility of large numbers of people being flown in to work in the mines and the impact it would have on Indigenous communities. With a projected 5,500 jobs, and a local workforce not big enough to fill that need, there were questions over ecological and cultural impacts of immigration.

Dimatteo said the nine Matawa communities involved in the project have a total population of 5,000 and are working to sign off on roads and development.

The hope is that those First Nation members that have left their communities to live in urban centres will want to return once there are jobs available near their original homes.

“We are confident we will see kids coming back and returning to the reserves,” he said.

Immigration, he said, is going to be needed, especially with projections of tens of thousands of jobs being unmet with current populations in the entire region.

Attraction and retention of immigrants is a must to revive and maintain the region's economy.

Part of that is getting some of the 4,000 students that come to Ontario to study at post-secondary institutions to stay for a while.

“We have them here in Northern Ontario; how do we keep them here and how do we keep attracting more?” Dimatteo said. “We need to do a better job of projecting the strong Northern image that makes people want to come here.”

A related concern was what kind of employment would be available to people in those communities, as there are few First Nation and Métis people at the executive level making decisions

The only off-limits question during the event was centred on the location of a proposed ferrochrome smelter.

Coutts did say, in later comments, they are in the process of adjudicating the four proposed locations in Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins and Thunder Bay, and are not planning to make any decision to choose one in the immediate time.

"We will likely delay any decision on the location of the ferrochrome smelter until after the provincial election,” he said.

A group opposing the Sudbury location,, was in attendance and left pamphlets highlighting issues it had on a table for people to take with them.

"Given all of our research and communication with researchers in Finland, we firmly believe that our health and fragile watersheds are truly at risk if this facility goes ahead in such close proximity to Coniston and the Wahnipitae and WhitefIsh watersheds,” she said. “We need an open forum in which to ask our questions and give all involved opportunities to provide us with answers.”