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Webequie First Nation digs in against rebooting Ottawa's Ring of Fire Regional Assessment

Community argues outlying First Nations are biased against mining development
James Bay Region (Webeque Supply Road Facebook page)
James Bay region (Webequie Supply Road Facebook photo)

The closest community to the Ring of Fire mineral belt is pushing back against a campaign to reboot Ottawa's Regional Assessment process.

"Webequie First Nation does not think there is a need for an Indigenous-led Regional Assessment," said the leadership of the Ojibway community, situated more than 100 kilometres west of the mineral-rich area in the James Bay region.

Webequie made those remarks in their submission to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, regarding the draft agreement and the terms of reference for the Regional Assessment in the Ring of Fire, initiated by the federal government two years ago.

Webequie, a community of 850, located 540 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, is one of two First Nations in the Far North, leading a provincially backed environmental assessment of the proposed access roads into this remote and undeveloped area. The roads will serve both the communities and the mining industry.

In Feb. 2020, Ottawa announced that instead of doing a series of one-off individual assessments on the impact of mining and mining-related infrastructure projects in the James Bay area, they would take a region-wide approach through this new and unproven process.

Ontario's Ring of Fire is the government's second application of this process. It was launched by then-Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson based on three requests made to him the previous fall by Aroland First Nation, Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, and Osgood Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic.

The feds have been taking comments from the public and interested groups for the terms of reference on how this assessment should be carried out.

In recent weeks, the leadership of five outlying communities, some hundreds of kilometres away from the mineral exploration camp, have amped up calls for federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault to reset the Regional Assessment process.

They insist there needs to be an Indigenous-led investigation and decision-making process, all parties at the table being equal, to evaluate the impact of mining in the Ring of Fire, an area they refer to as the "Breathing Lands."

Webequie replied in its submission, "Now that the Regional Assessment has started, rather than being satisfied with a decision for a Regional Assessment, these same distant First Nation communities are now demanding an Indigenous-led Regional Assessment."

The community sees bias and a conflict of interest among those five communities who have made their opposition to mining development publicly known in the media, on social media platforms, and in comments to government.

Guilbeault hasn't yet tipped his hand if he plans to do anything. 

If the minister intends to rejig the assessment process, Webequie said it wants a "central role" since their community would experience the direct impact of mining and other development activities, not the outlying communities.

Opposition from environmental organizations and legal groups, allied with the objecting communities, has grown over the last year.

Should the federal assessment process stay the same, it could trigger a court challenge launched by the objecting communities and their legal allies. An early legal skirmish on development in the Ring of Fire was recently settled

Over the years, Webequie said they have struck up good relations with government and the mining industry. They believe they have struck a socioeconomic balance with their Three-Tier Approach to planning that safeguards their homelands' well-being and traditional areas, while setting aside an outer area for economic development purposes.

The community carried out its own land-use planning about a decade ago in concert with the Ontario government. It documents sites of cultural significance and designates areas where historical and current traditional practices take place. Similar to a municipal official plan, it has its areas of permitted and non-permitted uses.

In their submission, Webequie cited their inherent Aboriginal and treaty rights to their decision-making autonomy and processes on matters related to their own priorities and strategies on development; principles that were outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (known as UNDRIP), which were adopted into law by the Canadian government last June.

Since the area of the Regional Assessment study area includes their homeland, Webequie maintained Ottawa and the Regional Assessment must respect their land-use plan.