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Ring of Fire road projects are 'sovereignty' issue, says Anishinaabe documentary filmmaker

Thunder Bay's Tony McGuire wades through the conflict and contradiction of Far North development
Thunder Bay filmmaker Tony McGuire filming his Bridges to the North documentary (Screen capture)

When Thunder Bay and Anishinaabe filmmaker Tony McGuire embarked upon a documentary project on the proposed roads to the Ring of Fire, he admittedly struggled with finding a focus.

“We weren’t really sure how to tell the story.”

McGuire had been invited by the isolated communities of Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations to take on a lightning rod of a topic among Indigenous people, environmental groups, politicians and industry for the last 15 years. 

For some, the Ring of Fire and the access roads to it would provide opportunity for well-paying jobs, improved community infrastructure, and the creation of a new northern economy. For others, industrial development would dramatically alter Indigenous people’s way of life for the worse and irreparably damage the region’s fragile ecosystem.

Open-minded in his approach, McGuire initially thought the project would be rather dry, somewhat technical, subject matter. Maybe, he thought, interview a few folks in the communities to sample some local opinion about development.

What gave it direction and perspective was when it became personal.

A cousin, originally from Marten Falls, had died. The dilemma was how to get family from the fly-in community down to Thunder Bay. Round-trip plane tickets were exorbitantly expensive. At that particular time of the year, no winter roads were open.

“It meant a block of the family was not going to be coming,” said McGuire.

“That’s when I realized, holy shit, this documentary is not actually about the roads, it’s about the people who will be owning them and using them,” said McGuire. “It really changed the direction of the doc.”

McGuire is the president and director of Theymedia, an award-winning production company he launched in 2008. His finished offering, Bridges to the North, premiered at the Vox Popular Media Arts Festival in Thunder Bay last month. 

The documentary is told from the point of view of Marten Falls and Webequie and their combined effort to bring permanent roads to the isolated communities for the first time. It was filmed amidst the backdrop of the pandemic and highlights the chronic on-reserve issues of suicide, food security, and the overall impoverished standard of living. 

Marten Falls and Webequie are the designated project proponents in leading the environmental assessments and technical studies for the series of roads that would reach the potential mine sites in the Ring of Fire, some 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. The roads would also connect the communities to the provincial highway network.

To the communities, planning and building the road network is an act of sovereignty and a path to a better life for its members. Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum said as much in a recent column.

To tell their story, McGuire said the two communities provided him with funding for the documentary.

Although McGuire shares credit as executive producer with the communities’ advisors — Michael Fox, a long-time friend, and Qasim Saddique — McGuire said he was given full autonomy to shape the film’s direction and storytelling. They provided the technical background and the context. 

“We were able to tackle any topic we wanted.”

When it comes to documentaries on Far North and mine development, McGuire said it’s commonplace to think an Indigenous-produced film might be an anti-mining rant.

“I don’t think anybody’s ready for a doc that talks about sovereignty and positivity.”

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Fifteen years earlier, McGuire viewed the Ring of Fire from the flip side. 

These same communities were prepared to stand their ground against the encroachment of the mining industry on their traditional lands. They demanded a say in how development would happen. 

In cart-before-the-horse fashion, the provincial government was celebrating the chromite and nickel discoveries as a promising new area of Ontario’s economy. But that was before any consultation with the Indigenous population was done.

“I was filming it from the other side.”

Some of that archival footage is woven into this updated story.

He choose to tell a “fuller story,” starting at the early mineral discovery phase and progressing to today’s environmental assessment stage. There’s was “so much” material to comb through.

McGuire hints his film is not kind to the previous Liberal provincial government, especially former Premier Kathleen Wynne and her approach to development, which essentially “poisoned the (consultation and planning) process.”

His entry into filmmaking was quite random. He dropped out of an unsatisfying career in social work to follow in the footsteps of a friend who was taking filmmaking in college. McGuire borrowed his textbooks, picked up a camera, and branched off to set up his own production company in 2008.

“We’ve never done a full-length documentary so it’s kind of amazing we did this during COVID with a limited budget, but we were able to pull it off. 

Bridges to the North was filmed during the height of the pandemic when the remote fly-in communities were on lockdown.

Webequie allowed in McGuire’s crew to film provided they isolated for seven days in a tent. A makeshift studio was set up to interview members using wireless mics and from a safe distance of 10 feet.

McGuire said it’s difficult to gauge community-wide opinion on development. Many were reluctant to speak on record. Some were eager, but guarded.

Generally, he said, people want development and the associated jobs but “there’s a little reticence there because they want it done right.”

Elders see the community drug problems and young people dying, McGuire said, and opine that development is necessary for the well-being of future generations to survive and thrive.

Getting up to speed on the socioeconomic issues implications of the Ring of Fire for the impacted Indigenous communities gave him plenty of pause for thought.

The adversarial treatment Marten Falls and Webequie have received from its neighbours in the North is a bit of a headscratcher to McGuire.

“I’m going, what did these few First Nations do to piss everybody off?”

He chalks it up to political posturing and various parties trying to serve their own interests. “No one is fully sharing their hand.”

McGuire concludes that Far North development is a subject that’s rife with contradiction.

Environmental groups are aligned against Ring of Fire mining, yet there are untapped critical minerals that can be extracted for technologies that can “save the world” in the campaign against global warming.

Member communities of Marten Falls and Webequie’s own tribal council are prepared to oppose the road construction.

Some Indigenous communities in the region are against the Ring of Fire roads, yet are planning their own permanent roads to reach the provincial highway system.

All this in spite of the fact that for the first time First Nations are leading a major environmental assessment process that incorporates both Western science with traditional knowledge to better safeguard their lands.

“This is unheard of,” McGuire said. “It seemed people didn’t have a voice when it was non-Indigenous (EA process). Now that it’s Indigenous, people are, like, this is the end of the world.”

“For me, it’s about sovereignty. If they wanna road, they have a right to build a road. Period. 

“I don’t care what anyone says. You can be against it, but you can’t stop it.”