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Change in federal assessment won't slow pace in the Ring of Fire, says mines minister

Federal environment minister wants more Indigenous involvement in Far North industry impact assessment

Ottawa’s decision to scrap plans for a Ring of Fire regional assessment process won’t interfere with the province’s intentions to get new mines into production faster.

Provincial Mines Minister George Pirie said they have guarantees from the federal government that assessments for the proposed roads into the James Bay region to connect two remote communities to the Ontario highway system will not impact any timelines to put new mines into production.

"Our government is building the roads that will unlock the critical minerals in the Ring of Fire,” Pirie responded in an email.

“We are actively working with the federal government and have been assured that the Regional Assessment will not impact the timelines for the Webequie Supply Road, Marten Falls Community Access Road, Northern Road Link or any other future project assessments at the provincial or federal level. 

“We will continue to work in partnership with (the road proponents) Webequie First Nation and Marten Falls First Nation to advance their projects that will connect the two communities to the highway network and the critical minerals in the Ring of Fire.”

With a strategic aim to create a homegrown critical minerals supply chain to feed the southern Ontario automakers, the Ford government has been demonstrating some urgency through a series of legislative and regulatory moves to get more mines permitted, faster, in Ontario.

In a nationally significant resources project like the Ring of Fire that means Ontario must have good coordination with the federal regulatory bodies.

This week The Narwhal reported on plans by federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault to start over with a new Regional Assessment process that involves more collaboration with area First Nations.

While it may add to investor uncertainty with mining projects in Ontario — a jurisdiction both Ottawa and Queen’s Park want to promote as mining-friendly — it might finally deliver on what some concerned First Nation Indigenous communities have been calling for: an Indigenous-led assessment process. 

Guilbeault had met with Matawa and Mushkegowuk leadership in Thunder Bay in January.

Then, as now, his office wouldn’t divulge the substance of that meeting, or what a new formal structure of what this process will look like.

The Narwhal obtained a follow-up letter from Guilbeault’s office after the meeting that was sent to Attawapiskat Chief Sylvia Metatawabin-Koostachin, their legal advisor, as well as Pirie.

Guilbeault is floating the concept of a “co-led” assessment process that reflects Indigenous values. Whatever process emerges, Guilbeault said it must be “conducted promptly and be pursued as a top priority.”

This assessment will not replace any individual assessments for proposed mine projects, the letter said.

The Regional Assessment was a new-out-of-the-box process that then federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson called for three years ago. But it never really got started. 

Designed as a holistic approach in determining the potential harmful impacts of mining in the region, the findings would be used only to inform a federal environmental assessment process.

However, Wilkinson’s successor in the ministry, Steven Guilbeault, never signed off the terms of reference to formally start the process.

In an effort to tackle what has been regulatory agency misalignment, Ottawa and Queen’s Park pledge to work better together, when it comes to critical minerals projects, to avoid redundancies in the assessment processes.

There are ongoing federal and provincial assessments for the planned road network into the mineral-rich James Bay region.

Both governments recognize the need to get new mines containing minerals used in the high-tech industry (dubbed “critical minerals”) like lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper, into production faster to meet the looming global supply crunch to serve battery and electric vehicle manufacturers.

But in the case of Ontario’s Ring of Fire, and other environmental sensitive places that have never hosted mining activities, Ottawa continues to prioritize environmental protection and Indigenous rights first over any fast-tracking of mines into production. 

Further, federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson vows Ottawa will not match Ontario’s $1-billion decade-old commitment for infrastructure in the Ring of Fire until all the assessments are complete.