The lack of an all-inclusive provincial strategy to advance development in the Ring of Fire is frustrating two remote First Nation communities in the area of the Far North mineral deposits.
In a Nov. 9 news release, the communities of Neskantaga and Eabametoong called out the Ford government for suspending a provincially-sponsored consultation process, known as the Regional Framework Agreement, and not replacing a fired negotiator.
“This will slow the process of reaching agreement and, potentially, delay future developments in the Ring of Fire. However, we remain committed to the process and the principles already agreed," said Neskantaga First Nation Chief Wayne Moonias in a statement.
Over the summer, the Ford government axed the province’s main negotiator in the Ring of Fire consultation process, Justice Frank Iacobucci, in a purge of former government officials appointed under the Wynne government.
The Regional Framework Agreement process was initiated by the previous government in April 2014.
It was a community-based process of negotiation with the Matawa First Nations tribal council on how mining and industrial development would unfold in the James Bay lowlands, how First Nation communities would participate and benefit, and how the environment would be safeguarded.
It’s not publicly known what progress, if any, was made over four years, since the talks were kept confidential.
In the news release, Neskantaga and Eabametoong categorized the four years of discussions as “productive exploratory talks.”
But late in Premier Kathleen Wynne's tenure, the whole process went into hibernation as the government shifted from trying to achieve consensus among the nine Matawa communities toward adopting a strategy of working only with the First Nations deemed “mining-ready.”
A jurisdictional table was launched to discuss governance and land-use planning issues of the access roads. That panel excluded Neskantaga and Eabametoong.
Two other communities on board for a north-south access road are being rewarded as engineering and environmental assessment processes are underway for two stretches between the Ring of Fire deposits and Webequie First Nation, and Nakina and Marten Falls First Nation.
The Neskantaga and Eabemetoong chiefs warn the Ford government that ignoring their voices and moving ahead with the environmental assessments for the access roads could backfire on the province and place the Ring of Fire mine projects at legal risk.
Over the summer, Eabemetoong won a major victory in the Division Court of Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice.
A provincially-issued permit for Landore Resources to do exploration near Keezhik Lake in northwestern Ontario was revoked by the court based on inadequate consultation with local Indigenous people who hunt and fish in the area.
The court said company will have to complete consultation with Eabametoong before a permit can be re-issued for Landore’s claim.
“Both the company and the government failed to act honourably,” said Chief Elizabeth Altookan.
“In this case, however, we are talking about a quick and dirty approach to opening the whole north, and the stakes are much higher. I’m honestly confused as to why Ontario won’t sit down with us. We went to Queen’s Park in September to ask direct questions about reconciliation and the Ring of Fire, but Ford’s lack of understanding and action is making a difficult situation far worse.”
The chiefs are concerned that building roads into the region will open up the Far North to “uncontrolled mining development” that will bring pollution and change their way of life.
They vow to “fight back” unless a negotiated agreement with Queen’s Park is reached to control the scale, pace and kind of development in the Ring of Fire.
Late on Nov. 9, the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines issued a response that area First Nations will have a say in how development proceeds.
“The Ring of Fire is an opportunity to support major economic development for communities in northern Ontario. The Ontario government remains committed to working with First Nations as partners, to ensure they have the opportunity to shape and provide input into how Ring of Fire developments move forward. The government is doing the work needed to unlock the potential in the Ring of Fire – for the benefit of First Nations and all people in Ontario.”