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Feds won't match Ontario's billion-dollar Ring of Fire pledge until assessments are done

Federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson pledges Ottawa will do better on advancing critical mineral production

Federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson vows to make government move faster and more efficiently in expediting approvals to put more Canadian mines into production ahead of the quickening global demand for critical minerals.

“There are a whole bunch of things we can do to make the processes move more effectively than they have in the past,” said Wilkinson.

The minister was in Sudbury on March 1 to meet with business leaders at the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce and toured Cambrian College to showcase new electric vehicle charging stations on campus.

At the same time, Wilkinson said Ottawa won't match Ontario's longstanding $1-billion commitment toward mining-related infrastructure in the Ring of Fire until the environmental assessments for the hundreds of kilometres of a proposed network of community and industry supply roads are complete. 

“We are talking to the Province of Ontario on things we potentially can do in the short term, but we obviously don’t make large-scale commitments until environmental assessments are finished.”

How quickly senior levels of government reach a path to better coordinate and streamline those processes to create an Ontario-made mine-to-assembly line electric vehicle supply chain remains to be seen.

In launching Ottawa’s $3.8-billion critical minerals strategy last December, Wilkinson acknowledged that there is a looming critical minerals supply crunch and that Canada has abundant resources in the ground to fill the gap. 

But when it comes to mine development, he said on Wednesday, Canadians expect it to be done in a responsible way that safeguards the environment and doesn’t trample on the rights of Indigenous people in the impacted areas.

“We obviously need to see significant enhancements in the volume of critical minerals that we are producing. But I also think Canadians expect us to ensure that we are continuing to consider the environment in the context of project development and, of course, we need to discharge our duties to Indigenous peoples," he said.

"That doesn’t mean we can’t do things better than we’ve done in the past.” 

So far, Ottawa has been big on process but murky on revealing any timelines and goals to show progress will be made, except for a federal mandate that no vehicles with internal combustion engines will be sold in Canada by 2035.

Those in Canada's mineral exploration and mine development sector wonder how that goal can be achieved given the sometimes decade-long regulatory process to approve of new mine projects, especially in critical minerals like in nickel, copper, cobalt and lithium.

In greenfield areas like the Ring of Fire in Ontario’s James Bay region — a minerally rich place that has never seen large-scale industrial development — this is one nationally significant region where the next generation of mines can be excavated. 

As the former federal environment minister, Wilkinson called for a Regional Assessment for the Ring of Fire area in February 2020 due to concerns by some area First Nations.

But the process continues to lag. Wilkinson’s successor, Steven Guilbeault, has yet to sign off on the terms of reference to start this process.

The regional assessment would study the negative cumulative effects of proposed development. The information gathered would inform a potential federal environmental assessment process. 

Wilkinson emphasized that in his conversations with mining companies operating in the Ring of Fire, government must work with them to understand how to develop those deposits in a manner that’s consistent with environmental protection.

The James Bay region, he said, is an ecologically complex area because of its abundant peatlands, “a huge carbon sink.”

“So the last thing we want to do is disturb the carbon sink in order to extract minerals to fight climate change,” said Wilkinson. “We need to make sure we’ve got pathways to do this in a manner that is environmentally responsible.”

Steve Flewelling, the outgoing CEO of Ring of Fire Metals, explained his company's “green” mining approach for the James Bay lowlands last month.

In struggling with the slow pace of permitting, he said the company was submitting proposals and meeting with regulators in Ottawa and Queen’s Park to suggest the creation of a framework to get assessments done in a "timely and responsible way."

For instance, Flewelling questioned the value of thousand-page-long environmental assessment documents that agencies must review before reaching a decision on a mine project.

Wilkinson responded yesterday that the federal government is making internal moves to staff up and provide support to the review agencies to avoid “stacking projects up one after another” and enable mining projects to advance quicker, something, he said, that wasn’t happening under the previous environmental assessment regime.

The focus, he said, is on working with the provinces to avoid duplication and ensure there is alignment between the provinces and even federal departments on how processes can be done concurrently and in “as fast a manner as we possibly can.”

The minister said he and provincial Mines Minister George Pirie are like-minded in not wishing to compromise the environment and sidestep government responsibility to consult with Indigenous people.

Wilkinson wouldn’t put a timeline on whether mine-related development will take place in the Ring of Fire within the next three to five years.

“I’m not going to put a timeframe on Ring of Fire. Ring of Fire is one where, clearly, there is concern on the part of some of the Indigenous parties and we need to work our way through that.”