Greg Rickford rejects any suggestion that the Ring of Fire might turn into Ontario’s version of Teck Frontier.
“We build corridors, not mines,” answered Ontario's Energy, Northern Development and Mines Minister, in an interview after his March 5 speech at a Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce lunchtime crowd. The minister was in town to outline his government's accomplishments at the 18-month mark.
Rickford, who also serves as minister of Indigenous affairs, said the province’s focus is on building "legacy infrastructure" that improves the health, social well-being and the economies of First Nation communities, and creating the conditions for business and industry to thrive.
Teck Resources' decision to withdraw from its Frontier oilsands mine proposal in February, after weeks of blockades in Alberta and prior to a federal decision on the $20-billion project, was attributed to the jurisdictional uncertainty in balancing resource development with climate change and Indigenous rights.
The company was careful not to point fingers at any particular level of government.
Rickford did not see any comparison between the situation that scuttled that resource project and the far-from-clear regulatory path ahead for the series of rich, multi-generational mineral deposits in the James Bay region.
But he admitted to being blindsided by Ottawa’s announcement in late February on its new approach toward Far North development by ordering a full regional assessment of the Ring of Fire area.
This is the first land-based project under the new federal process stemming from Bill C-69. The first regional assessment was called in January for an off-shore oil project in Newfoundland-Labrador.
In letters to two environmental groups and Aroland First Nation, who requested the assessment, federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the terms of reference had yet to be determined but they intended to carry it out in “full partnership” with the Ontario government.
That was news to the province.
“Not a very classy thing to do,” said Rickford, adding he received no advance notice from Wilkinson. “We didn’t know about it.”
It clashed with the Ford government's imminent plans to announce a partnership with two First Nations – Marten Falls and Webequie – to start the provincial environmental assessment (EA) of the Northern Link, the final stretch of road leading into the Ring of Fire.
The road agreement was later announced at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s (PDAC) mining convention in Toronto, March 2.
Rickford sharply criticized Ottawa for overstepping its boundaries with new rules that threatened to derail progress.
“This is a new omnibus piece of legislation. I thought it was more intended to look at projects that crossed provincial boundaries and had more clear guidelines and criteria for what and when they could impose it on.”
Rickford recently met with Wilkinson to gain some clarity.
“I don’t think that’s very cool, and frankly, I expressed that in no uncertain terms to the minister.”
But it’s a delicate dance since Queen’s Park wants to work with Ottawa to pay roughly half the construction costs for infrastructure in the James Bay region.
Rickford said, in fairness, Wilkinson did commit to engage in a process that will not stall infrastructure development
The Indigenous communities who are the road proponents, he stressed, are entitled to stick with the original rules of the environment processes, instead of starting from scratch. Any new federal EA process must recognize the work that’s been done, Rickford said.
“Otherwise, it risks prolonging and delaying this development, and we will not stand for that."
Since base metals and chromite were first discovered by Noront Resources in 2007, not much has happened to move the yard sticks on road or mine construction. Bureaucracy and endless discussion have bogged down progress.
A provincial Regional Framework Agreement process to discuss with area First Nations on how development would unfold went nowhere and was scrapped by the Ford government last year.
The revised strategy is to work with development-ready communities, which has alienated some First Nations.
But it's resulted in assessments and early design underway on a short mine supply road and now the entire length of a north-south access road to connect the communities to the provincial highway system.
Construction on the corridor's southern-most part, between Aroland and Marten Falls, could begin in two years. The assessment for the entire length of the corridor is expected to last five years.
Rickford said Indigenous communities want infrastructure projects to advance “at the speed of business.”
But increasingly, natural resource projects and industry have come under intense protest from the environmental movement, including outside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre during PDAC 2020, the world’s largest mining convention.
Rickford admitted he’s always “concerned” that the opposition and fundraising efforts that have gone into stopping pipelines in Western Canada could swing east toward inhibiting project work in the James Bay region.
But Rickford also feels far too much media attention has being given to the protesters, while the stories of how Indigenous people are benefitting from resource development are not being told.
Little mention, he said, is made of the mining sector's “world-class job” to employ Indigenous workforce presence throughout the supply chain or the partnerships established to develop legacy infrastructure.
He joked that many of the PDAC protesters were taking iPhone selfies which probably contained minerals mined in Northern Ontario.
“We’re about creating opportunities for people across Northern Ontario, whether you’re Indigenous or non-Indigenous. We think it’s a good idea that instead of picking up a sign to protest, you pick a phone that says, you’ve got the job.”
Rickford did confirm that resource revenue sharing money – a pre-election goodie promised to First Nations by the Wynne government in 2018 and later honoured by the Ford government – is now flowing to the communities.
The series of agreements between the province and 32 First Nations in the northeast enables them to receive 40 per cent of the annual mining tax and royalties from existing mines in their areas, 45 per cent from future mines, and 45 per cent of forestry stumpage.
Shortly, Rickford said, the government expects to roll out plans for a wider revenue sharing program covering the Treaty 3 area of northwestern Ontario, as well as for municipalities not covered under the original agreement.