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First Nations chiefs concerned with Ring of Fire process

Letter sent to government says draft terms of reference 'wrongly excludes us Indigenous peoples from all but token roles'
Ring of Fire landscape

As Canada and Ontario discuss a potential agreement on how the regional assessment will be done in the Ring of Fire area, First Nations chiefs are calling to be equally consulted and included in the process.

On Wednesday, Jan. 19, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany, Neskantaga, Kashechewan and Eabametoong First Nations chiefs sent a joint letter to federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault.

According to the letter, the chiefs met virtually with Guilbeault on Jan. 17 and expressed concerns about the terms of reference (TOR) for the Regional Impact Assessment (RIA) in the carbon-rich peatlands known as the “Breathing Lands”.

“These are the world’s lungs, and rampant mining development could not only destroy this globally critical carbon sink but release its huge store of carbon and escalate climate change further into catastrophe,” reads the letter.

The chiefs said there needs to be an Indigenous-led investigation and decision-making process regarding the Breathing Lands and called Canada to restart “afresh” with Indigenous nations mutually and equally participating in developing, enforcing and leading the RIA.

“What Canada, in agreement with Ontario, plans to do is far from proper or safe, and instead promotes recklessness and danger,” reads the letter. “Your draft TOR is narrow in geographic and activity scope, and wrongly excludes us Indigenous peoples from all but token roles.”

The Ring of Fire is located in northwestern Ontario, with communities along the James Bay coast in northeastern Ontario being downstream of the development before the water ultimately flows into Hudson Bay.

In January 2021, Mushkegowuk chiefs called for a moratorium on Ring of Fire development citing similar concerns about the impact on unique wetlands and watersheds.

In April 2021, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Neskantaga First Nations declared a moratorium on development in the Ring of Fire.

In the Jan. 19 letter, the chiefs called for a definitive yes or no answer from the minister by Jan. 28.

“Any attempt by the Crown to come back with less than the equality we have asked for and deserve, and which the fight against climate disaster needs, will be seen as nothing but an attempt to dress up a broken window with pretty drapes,” the letter states. “And any such attempt will lead to our active enforcement of the Moratorium issued last April.”

According to the moratorium, it may be lifted if Canada and Ontario agree to plan and conduct the RIA on “terms that respect our Rights and protect our Mother Earth.”

The moratorium will be, “defended and enforced by our First Nations, our Mother Earth, and our lawyers in Canadian courts for Crown breaches of all the laws stated above,” it reads.

The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada is currently collecting public feedback on the draft agreement to conduct a regional assessment in the Ring of Fire area. People have until Feb. 1 to provide their feedback.

TimminsToday sent a request for comment to the agency.

Last week, the Friends of the Attawapiskat River group launched a petition demanding an Indigenous-led process and opposing the proposed Ring of Fire development and the assessment in the region. The group also called to extend the Feb. 1 deadline.

In the Jan. 19 letter, First Nations chiefs said offering more time to comment on the terms of reference isn’t the solution.

"We will not accept mere "participation" in a unilateral, top-down, Crown-led process that ignores our jurisdiction, laws, and responsibilities," they said in the letter.

— TimminsToday