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Road blocks to the Ring of Fire

Details still scarce, election clock ticking on Far North mineral development

Making any headway on building an access road to the Ring of Fire remains a complex, winding and muddled path.

Despite Premier Kathleen Wynne’s strident tones in demanding progress to jumpstart development in the dormant Far North mineral belt, it could be years before any shovels are in the ground to blaze a road corridor to the James Bay lowlands.

The provincial bureaucrat leading the regional infrastructure planning process claims much work remains to forge First Nation partnerships with the Matawa tribal council before any construction takes place.

When Northern Development and Mines assistant deputy minister Christine Kaszycki was asked by an attendee at a May 25 Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce luncheon for a realistic timeline when Ring of Fire ore can be expected to start moving, she admitted she couldn’t provide one.

“Nothing happens in a linear fashion,” Kaszycki told the audience, explaining that a “number of dependencies” must be factored in, such as securing federal funding to put vital socio-economic supports in place to prepare the nearby Matawa First Nation communities for development.

Ten years after Noront Resources’ Eagle’s Nest nickel deposit was discovered in the James Bay lowlands, the Toronto mine developer is still waiting on the Ontario government to announce the route for an access road that fits both the needs of the mining industry and has the approval of area First Nations.

With Queen’s Park making no mention of the Ring of Fire from its spring budget, the Wynne government is under the gun to make good on its three-year-old promise to invest $1 billion in mining-related transportation infrastructure before the June 2018 election.

The lack of a development plan and a decision on a corridor could pose a risk in seeing the lead mining developer mothball its advanced nickel and chromite projects.

Facing pressure from investors, Noront president-CEO Alan Coutts has said their exploration program, and possibly the entire project, could be halted as early as this September if financing dries up.

The mining company tabled a mine development plan last August pegging 2018 as the start of mine construction of the Eagle’s Nest projects – the first in its stable of nickel, copper and chromite deposits – with the first production run by 2021.

Noront brass are currently scouting locations in Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Timmins and Thunder Bay-Fort William First Nation for a ferrochrome processing plant.

But Coutts has made it clear: no access road means no mines and no smelter.

Before Cliffs Natural Resources sold its chromite claims to Noront in 2015, the Ohio miner had been stymied by many obstacles in securing agreements with Ontario and First Nations to extend transportation infrastructure running north into the remote region.

When asked in an interview with Northern Ontario Business what signs of progress Noront’s investors can expect soon, Kaszycki responded she expects to see “significant progress” made this year, “both in terms of our Indigenous community partnership and some progress with respect to some of the tangible infrastructure projects. It is not just about transportation, there’s broadband as well that’s underway.”

The route to the Ring favoured by Noront is a shared east-west corridor linking the communities and mineral deposits to the start of the provincial highway system at Pickle Lake, a distance of more than 200 kilometres.

A permanent road would roughly follow the path of the existing winter road network and would enable construction material to be ferried into the mining camp and allow for the first shipments of ore to be trucked to a rail transfer facility in northwestern Ontario.

It would certainly be less costly than a north-south road and rail corridor that would have to span major river systems to reach the deposits. But getting down to the business of choosing a route has proved elusive. It remains to be determined if the communities along a proposed east-west route even want year-round road access.

A government-funded technical All-Season Community Road Study released to the province in 2016 revealed some reluctance in Webequie, Eabametoong, Neskantaga and Nibinamik for an east-west road.

Many of those consulted feared an increase in local drug and alcohol abuse, environmental concerns, and severe reductions in government funding and assistance, among other issues.

One table in the report revealed recipients in these communities receiving Ontario Works benefits could take a 35 per cent to 55 per cent reduction if they lose their remote status.

Kaszycki responded they’re still looking to find solutions through community engagement to help alleviate those concerns about how road access would impact First Nation traditional values and way of life.

Many of these issues were supposed to be addressed through the government’s 2014 Regional Framework Agreement negotiations to determine how the nine communities of the Matawa First Nations would participate in resource development.

Three years after these confidential discussions started, the Bob Rae-led talks are dragging on with no public updates and no timetable to finish talks.

The view in some government and industry corners is that the discussions have strayed beyond the original vision and that the relationship with Matawa needed to be reset, especially in reaching a decision on a road.

It prompted Premier Wynne to authorize the establishment of a jurisdictional table last fall, informally referred to as the ‘four-by-four group.’

It consists of four Matawa representatives and four government officials consisting of Northern Development and Mines deputy minister David de Launay, Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation deputy minister Deborah Richardson and their respective support staff of Kaszycki and Alison Pilla.

It’s the job of the jurisdictional table to determine governance issues for the road, ownership and control, as well as exploration permitting, land-use planning, and general land management issues.

Kaszycki said this table is not taking the place of the Rae-led regional framework discussions. “It is our expectation that both will move forward in parallel.”

Even if an alignment is chosen this year, construction could be years away with at least 18 months of detailed engineering work to follow and years of environmental assessment work on the route.

With progress inching along, Premier Wynne issued a May 10 letter to the nine Matawa chiefs – which her office released to the media – demanding “meaningful progress in weeks, not months” on making shared decisions on road and infrastructure development.

In her letter, Wynne said the table “has been making progress discussing approaches to joint decision-making,” but has not achieved as much progress on road and infrastructure development as the government had hoped for.

For years, the province had strived to achieve consensus among the Matawa communities, but if there’s no consensus to be had, Wynne said the province is prepared to work with the individual communities who are ready to move forward.

“It’s about being respectful to individual community needs and state of readiness as well,” said Kaszycki, who added “the door is open” for the other communities to come aboard.

That approach could be fraught with risk.

Dealing one-on-one with individual communities could run afoul of a Matawa unity declaration signed in 2011.

And whichever route is eventually chosen, area communities still have to give consent for the road to cross their traditional land.

Marten Falls appears to be the most mine-ready of the Matawa communities and could get its own access road.

The small reserve of 252 people on the Albany River is being heavily courted by Noront and KWG Resources, the latter company is hoping to secure their support in a north-south railroad development and financing plan involving a Chinese state-owned engineering group.

Kaszycki confirmed to Northern Ontario Business that the province is “working with that community to get to the point where there is a viable proposal for a community access road.”

Since Marten Falls is located south of the Ring of Fire deposits, it was not part of the east-west road study.

But it is located 170 kilometres northeast of Nakina, close to where KWG Resources proposes a north-south rail corridor. Kaszycki said choosing the road alignment is in the hands of Marten Falls.

“Their approach would south and west of the community. Where it would intersect (to the south) is whatever the community decides is the best routing alignment.”