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Three James Bay chiefs jump on premier over Ring of Fire remarks

Attawapiskat, Fort Albany, Neskantaga chiefs said mining should not come at expense of destroying Far North peatlands
James Bay Lowlands (Noront Resources photo)
James Bay lowlands (Noront Resources photo)

Three First Nation chiefs from the James Bay region are collectively taking Premier Doug Ford to task for his 'hop-on-the-bulldozer, myself' enthusiasm to see industrial development in the Ring of Fire.

With the Ford government eager to show progress on the Ring of Fire prior to next June's election, the leaders of Neskantaga, Attawapiskat and Fort Albany trotted out the bulldozer line from Ford's 2018 campaign after the premier was recently hyping the Far North mineral belt earlier this month.

The isolated Ring of Fire, located 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, is a key piece of the government's plan to create a mining-to-manufacturing supply chain in establishing Ontario as a North American leader in electric vehicle assembly.

The Ring of Fire affords an opportunity to mine nickel and other critical minerals needed to make lithium-ion batteries for the car industry. Two Australian mining companies, BHP and Wyloo Metals, are negotiating over the right to bring the area into production.

Ford talked about economic benefits from mining activity for the nearby Indigenous communities in the form of good-paying road-building and mining jobs. He said consultation has taken place "from day one" with the communities located near the Ring of Fire.

In their letter, the chiefs responded the premier's remarks smack of "colonialism" and indicate his government's intent to, unilaterally, advance development in the Far North without First Nations' consent. 

The letter, which was sent to the premier's office and Northern Development, Mines, Forestry and Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford, was signed by Attawapiskat Chief David Nakogee, Fort Albany Chief Robert Nakogee and Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias.

The letter comes on the heels of Neskantaga launching legal action against the province last week.

The leadership of Neskantaga contends it hasn't been properly consulted and accommodated by the province and accuses Queen's Park of ignoring its community laws and protocols when it comes to natural resource projects taking place on its traditional territory. The First Nation claims its traditional lands include the Ring of Fire and the proposed roads leading into the deposits.

Neskantaga is one of the closer communities to the Ring of Fire mineral belt. Two other communities, Marten Falls and Webequie, are supporters of the development and are road proponents for the access roads.

Fort Albany and Attawapiskat are two communities located hundreds of kilometres to the east, on the James Bay coast. In threatening legal action last April, they've expressed concerns in the past about potentially negative downstream impacts of mining in the region.

In the letter, the chiefs said there must be "better economic possibilities in the north." Mining in the Far North to make money and electric vehicles matters little, they said, if it means allowing industry to run "unchecked" in the James Bay region.

"This is also the very essence of the industrialism that has led us into a countdown toward permanent and catastrophic climate change from which we may never recover," the chiefs said.

There are signs of movement afoot as in October, the terms of reference for the Webequie Supply Road and the Marten Falls Community Access Road were approved, signalling the start of the provincial environmental assessment process for those two proposed routes.

The chiefs said development shouldn't come at the expense of destroying the "world's second largest intact peatlands and the critically important defence against climate change..."

These three communities called for a moratorium on development in the Ring of Fire earlier this year.

This fall, Attawapiskat sought an injunction in a Toronto court, insisting it wasn't adequately consulted by the province prior to issuing permits to an exploration company.

The chiefs also take issue with the new federal Regional Impact Assessment process, introduced early last year, and now headed led by environment and climate change minister and former Greenpeace activist Steven Guilbeault.

The chiefs said this process is not "co-led" by First Nations but is being led and run by the Crown.