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‘Ring’ leaders take holistic approach to Far North development

First Nation road proponents strive to lead the way into the Ring of Fire on their terms

Two senior leaders from Webequie First Nation said they are not opposed to development in the Ring of Fire but environmental stewardship and the well-being of their community very much remain their priorities.

Roy Spence and Gordon Wabasse participated in a panel discussion on the Webequie Supply Road during the Procurement Employment Partnerships (PEP) Conference and Trade Show, staged by the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 21.

The two are project team leaders on the proposed 110-kilometre road to the mining development area in the James Bay region.

“The overall objective of the community is always creating the right socioeconomy – a healthy, vibrant economy,” said Wabasse.

Situated 540 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, the remote Ojibway community of 800 is the closest fly-in community to the mineral claims in the James Bay lowlands.

The supply road is the first Indigenous-led project in Ontario and the first under the new federal Impact Assessment Act.

SNC-Lavalin has been hired to provide Webequie with environmental and engineering support as part of the provincial and federal environmental assessment process.

Webequie is taking a unique three-tiered approach toward the supply road process, combining Indigenous principles and practices with mainstream processes in the environmental assessment.

It takes into account the overall health and well-being of the community, preserving Indigenous culture, and respecting treaty rights through a “fair sharing” of benefits from the land with government and industry.

“Because we know the terrain, the behaviour of the land, and wildlife, we understand it better,” said Wabasse.

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Only 17 years after Webequie officially became a reserve, a major mineral discovery of chromite was made 70 kilometres away in 2007.

Forty-some junior exploration companies descended upon Webequie’s homelands.

More than a dozen helicopters crowded the community’s 3,500-foot airstrip, making a number of flyovers of a popular hunting ground.

“It was overwhelming,” remembers consultant Michael Fox, the panel moderator, who was hired as a community negotiator in 2007.

It was the case of a naturally rooted people, whose philosophy and culture was embodied by their practices on the land, “bumping up against” a major world-class mineral discovery.

For the bewildered members, there were few reference points about what a mineral discovery entailed, what an environmental assessment involved, and what business opportunities there were.

Fast-forward to today and the First Nation is one of two Indigenous project proponents to the dual-use community and industry road projects pertaining to the Ring of Fire.

The other is Marten Falls, to the south, which is working with AECOM for the first leg of a longer north-south road to connect the remote community to the provincial highway system in the Nakina-Aroland First Nation area in northwestern Ontario.

“It’s not, in a way, that we’re against development. We want to see how we can play a part in the guidance and environmental stewardship, and leveraging opportunity with industry,” added Wabasse.

He emphasized the social well-being of the community must be taken into account.

The goals are to improve the quality of life and provide a healthy workforce for when the mines are developed.

The first mine, Noront Resources’ Eagle’s Nest nickel deposit, is slated to go into production in 2024.

Wabasse and Spence gave a snapshot of life in the community and sentiment harboured by some members toward development.

Webequie just completed a two-year housing plan to try and address overcrowding issues since new homes haven’t been built in the community for more than a decade.

“As I speak, homes are falling apart in Webequie,” said Spence.

Past government practices “blocked” them from having a voice or having a direct relationship with business, he added.

And some members remain steadfastly against any kind of staking and industrial development in their hunting grounds.

Spence said while he and other Indigenous people enjoy all the trappings of modern life – mentioning his first snowmobile in 1969 – environmental protection is paramount.

“Our water has to be clean. Water is so precious; it’s so important. It helps our environment.”

Don Parkinson, consultation lead with SNC-Lavalin, called this an “inside-out” environmental assessment process.

Instead of a project proponent coming to Webequie with a proposal to solicit community comments, Webequie, as owner and leader of the road project, is going out to gather feedback from all the communities in the region.

Parkinson said he’s pestered his Indigenous colleagues with endless questions to draw out information so he can better understand their relationship with the land.

“As technical people, our first job on this project is to close our mouths and listen. And when we do open our mouths, we ask a lot of questions.”

Parkinson said understanding that connection with the land is the “absolute fundamental foundation” of doing this work.

“The community members and their ancestors have lived on these lands for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They know and have relationships with these lands, have spiritual relationships, life-sustaining relationships.”

“It’s our job to take that and translate it into a proper environmental assessment that doesn’t just reflect Western science.”

In the past, compiling Indigenous traditional knowledge of the land was often regarded as a “checklist item” in report writing.

“I think that needs to be meaningful.”

Parkinson said their expectation is to take that wisdom to another level with the environmental assessment.

As part of a vegetation survey, plant and wildlife experts will be talking to community members this winter about what these collected samples mean to them, how they’re used, and what they mean spiritually.

“This is a practical example of taking Indigenous knowledge and actually turning it into something meaningful that is an aid to actual decision-making.”

Wabasse said there remains a multitude of issues and challenges to be worked through including jurisdictional regional issues over land position, which can be divisive among communities, government and industry.

“The objective is common good and we have to put ourselves in that state to come up with something that is meaningful for all of us,” he said. “We have to have a new way of thinking and doing business.”

In extending an invitation for an upcoming socioeconomic summit in Webeque next summer, Wabasse said he has appreciated the cross-cultural exchange through this process.

“We are very open to dialogue to discuss these things with government, industry, and people who come approach us. Webequie consists of very humble, kind people who are very welcoming.”