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Ring of Fire high on new deputy minister’s agenda

Dive into David de Launay’s bio and it’s easy to decipher how two decades of provincial policy and special project work have prepared him for the job as Ontario’s new deputy minister for Northern Development and Mines.
David de Launay, Ontario’s deputy minister for Northern Development and Mines.

Dive into David de Launay’s bio and it’s easy to decipher how two decades of provincial policy and special project work have prepared him for the job as Ontario’s new deputy minister for Northern Development and Mines.

Not surprisingly, finding a way to jumpstart the stalled Ring of Fire project is top of mind for de Launey who slid into the chair in early January after his predecessor George Ross left last summer to take a similar posting with the Government of the Yukon.

De Launey is not a new player being introduced into the fray.

He shifts over from Aboriginal Affairs where he was deputy minister. Prior to that he was assistant deputy minister with the Ring of Fire Secretariat, handling relations with First Nation communities impacted by the potential mine development, and served stints with Cabinet Office and Natural Resources.

He’s crossed paths with many of the chiefs and Ring of Fire mining executives, and recruited former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci to serve as Ontario’s negotiator for the regional framework agreement.

Taking on meaty projects is nothing new for the Montreal-raised public servant who worked behind the scenes of the employee-led buyout of Spruce Falls Paper Mill in Kapuskasing and the transition of Elliot Lake from uranium mining town to retirement mecca. 

Very early in his career, he was involved in consultations with the Moose Cree on evaluating and measuring the environmental impacts of future hydroelectric development in the Far North.

It laid the groundwork for a partnership with Ontario Power Generation to redevelop the Lower Mattagami River that delivered a 25 per cent equity stake to the Cree, along with heavy equipment operator jobs and camp contracts.

“That, to me, is a model of the different things you need to do to move forward in Northern Ontario,” he said.

Later on as the Ministry of Natural Resources’ lands and waters director, he helped negotiate a landmark agreement with eight Great Lakes states and Quebec to protect those inland seas which resulted in a very powerful constitutionally-protected arrangement.

“That was a very complex, multi-lateral negotiation that I was the lead in Ontario. We were doing something pretty innovative and creative, and getting a deal in the end.”

On the Ring of Fire file, de Launey must shepherd a plan that delivers overland infrastructure development for industry, addresses environmental concerns, and creates wealth for Ontarians, especially Aboriginal people.

“That’s what makes these projects complex and also what makes them fascinating,” he said. “The most important ingredient for making these arrangements work is the ‘small p’ political will of the parties to get it done.

“These aren’t deals you put together in three months beginning to end. They’re much more complicated than that. They involve public policy, community impacts and the commercial (interests) side of the deal.”

He enters at a time when the mining cycle is in a trough, exploration has ground to a halt, Cliffs Natural Resources is conducting a slow Napoleonic retreat from the James Bay lowlands, and the industry and First Nations remain uneasy over the still-looming spectre of the government’s Far North Act.

While he’s powerless to impact Chinese demand for minerals, de Launey said he’s focusing on the task at hand which includes making a “breakthrough” on resource revenue sharing, but he offered no specifics on how that can be achieved.

A province wide revenue-sharing concept went nowhere so Ontario has adopted the British Columbia model of a more sector-based approach starting with enhanced sustainable forestry licences involving First Nations.

At the same time, he said, people’s expectations must be managed about how much revenue is potentially out there. Even with a booming resource economy, resource-related revenues annually total less than a billion dollars of the provincial budget.

He also declined comment on the mechanics behind the province’s Ring of Fire development corporation and whatever advice is coming from Deloitte Canada on how that body will be constituted and what transportation corridor the province favours to reach the mineral deposits.

Falling back on his experience with the Lower Mattagami project and the Great Lakes compact, he cautions against expecting instant solutions.

“I know we’re doing good work. I know it’s slow and people don’t always see the results, but I think in the New Year we’re going to be able to move forward on key areas of infrastructure and the relationship with First Nations.”

De Launay said Ontario has invested in Aboriginal training and addressed social needs on mental health and addiction issues, but now must address the concerns of individual communities, specifically water and sewer.

“In my view, there’s a need for out-of-the-box thinking in that area,” he said. “There may be new technologies for purifying water that can be employed.”

Addressing substandard housing issues on reserves resides with Ottawa, but he said a number of people have come forward with some innovative ideas.

While he has no timelines on when the feds will match Ontario’s $1-billion infrastructure commitment for the Ring of Fire, de Launey said discussions continue at a bureaucratic level, but he acknowledges that both government levels need to focus on the “quick wins” that demonstrate to First Nations the greater benefits down the road.