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Matawa chiefs say they won’t be ignored in the Ring of Fire

James Bay Indigenous leaders want direct connection with government in partnering on Far North development

The chiefs of the Matawa First Nations are accusing government and upper-level Indigenous organizations of cutting “colonial backroom deals” that’s undermining their sovereignty authority in the Ring of Fire area.

In a Dec. 15 news release, the Matawa Chiefs Council called out Ottawa, Queen’s Park, the Assembly of First Nations, the Chiefs of Ontario and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation who, the chiefs contend, are “compromising the positions of Indigenous rights holders” in the James Bay region. 

Matawa is a tribal council of nine remote and road accessible communities in northwestern Ontario and the Far North area, including the Ring of Fire. Their territorial lands and treaty rights cover the prospective mineral belt.

The Matawa leadership contend government and various Indigenous groups are having high-level discussions to advance their own interests in a way that's unacceptable to the Matawa leadership and its member communities.

The chiefs are reminding all that they don’t intend to be left out of any decision-making processes that impact their territory lands.

Signatories to the news release were the chiefs of Neskantaga, Eabametoong, Long Lake No. 58, Constance Lake, Ginoogaming, Marten Falls – one of the James Bay road proponents – and an elder from Webequie First Nation, the closest community to the Ring of Fire.

Webequie recently signed a collaboration agreement with Ring of Fire Metals, a subsidiary of Wyloo Metals of Australia.

Ottawa, the chiefs contend, is looking to “orchestrate national processes without the meaningful input and participation of the Indigenous rights holders, who are the lone decision-makers and granters of free, prior and informed consent.”

In the release, the chiefs call the events of 2022 a “pivotal” time in the lives of their people. The industry development about to occur in their homeland is a “one-shot deal” to correct the wrongs of the past and allow future generations to be “active participants in a prosperous future” associated with mining, they said.

With Wyloo Metals’ takeover of Noront Resources this year, the Australian mining player is prepared to make significant investments in the North. The pressure is on governments to clear the regulatory path to production for mining projects and quickly fill the gap in securing a home-sourced supply of critical minerals to feed the North American electric vehicle industry.

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Federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said as much in a speech about his government’s critical minerals strategy last week.

The chiefs are also disappointed that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Executive Committee is staking out its own turf in proposing a First Nations National Prosperity Table with the Prime Minister. They said the AFN is preparing for negotiations on a National Benefit-Sharing Framework announced last week by Wilkinson as part of the government’s Critical Minerals Strategy.

The Matawa chiefs want a “dedicated federal Crown table” of their own to be part of any processes and protocols involved in any mining and mining-related development in the Ring of Fire.

The chiefs point out $25 million given to the Chiefs of Ontario last October as part of a joint First Nations Economic Growth and Prosperity Table with the Ontario government, but Matawa has not received any funding support. They claim Nishnawbe Aski Nation has "denied us of any political, technical or legal supports" and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada has declined them of "basic capacity support," an approach, they claim, is reminiscent of "colonial starvation techniques" forced on First Nations to sign treaties. 

Matawa did not respond to a query by Northern Ontario Business on the amount of their funding proposal and how it would be used. 

“The best approach for all Matawa members and Canadians is a transparent, fair and reconciliatory process that will benefit all of us,” the chiefs said.

“It must be clear to all parties that the Matawa member First Nations are the sovereign lead communities in the development of the Ring of Fire.”