Premier Doug Ford looked to highlight provincial investments in Indigenous training initiatives during a whirlwind Northwestern Ontario stop on Thursday.
The premier announced recipients of Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation funding in Greenstone in the morning, before visiting a Matawa training centre and paper and sawmills in Thunder Bay later in the day.
The premier took only two questions from media during his stops in Thunder Bay.
Asked why he has not so far agreed to meet with a group of five Northwestern Ontario First Nations leaders who have flagged urgent concerns about mining activity on their traditional territory, forming the Land Defence Alliance, the premier did not give a direct answer.
“I’m the most accessible premier this province has seen — I give everyone my phone number,” he said. “If you have an issue, you come by, you give me a call.”
“I always joke around with [Minister of Indigenous Affairs] Greg [Rickford], I said, I should be the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, because I’m getting calls from chiefs literally every single week, almost every single day. So everyone’s welcome to come down and pay us a visit and have a chat.”
Despite those assurances, Ford did not meet with several Land Defence Alliance chiefs who travelled to Toronto last week hoping to talk with the premier, saying several previous requests for a meeting had been ignored.
The group, comprising Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows), Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, Wapekeka, Muskrat Dam, and Neskantaga First Nations, rejected an offer from the government to meet instead with Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford.
During Ford’s visit on Thursday, Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum said he agrees the premier should meet directly with those leaders, even if his community sometimes may not share their approach to mining development.
“They’re our neighbours and they factor into the overall equation of what happens in our lands,” he said. “They’re very concerned, and for rightful reasons, that when development happens, there’s environmental changes, and there’s concerns regarding Aboriginal treaty rights.”
Achneepineskum also welcomed the government’s support for Indigenous training initiatives highlighted during Ford’s visit.
The premier announced the province had approved a carpentry apprenticeship program at Kiikenomaga Kikenjigewen Employment & Training Services (KKETS), which serves nine Matawa First Nations including Marten Falls.
That will allow up to 90 members of Matawa First Nations to train as carpenters, often gaining experience working on projects in their home communities, leaders said.
“In this day and age, First Nations have to be part of the economy, have to be a part of discussions around what happens on the land,” said Achneepineskum. “This is all part of that. It’s a start. It’s important we are involved in all facets of development.”
The agreement comes with provincial dollars to support training, but a spokesperson for the premier said the size of that commitment wasn’t immediately available.
In Greenstone, Ford had announced several million dollars in provincial funding.
That includes $2 million for a more than 7,000-square-foot training complex build by Ne-Daa-Kii-Me-Naan, intended to promote First Nations participation in the forest sector, and another $2 million for First Nations-owned Minodahmun Development to develop the Migizi Commercial Plaza.
Other NOHFC awards included $1.5 million for enhancements to ice-making equipment at Greenstone community centres; $200,000 for Instinct Contracting to purchase roadside wood processing equipment meant to enable it to work closely with First Nation-owned companies in the Kenogami Forest; and $60,000 for Aroland First Nation for a feasibility study on a central multi-purpose facility in the community.
The premier also made brief stops at Thunder Bay Pulp and Paper and the Darrel Avenue sawmill owned by Paper Excellence, formerly Resolute Forest Products, on Thursday evening.
Asked how the government is supporting housing availability in the north, Ford pointed to those assets, each recently acquired by new companies.
“This is God’s country up here, people are salt-of-the-earth, and there’s opportunities,” he said. “We have to make sure we create the environment and conditions for companies to come here and invest.
“That’s what we saw over at the Thunder Bay Pulp and Paper, Resolute here too — it’s all vertically integrated. When there’s opportunities, people will move here.”
He pointed to the manufacturing investment tax credit passed by his government in the 2023 budget as one incentive for corporate investment in the province, claiming it helped “cut over $8 billion of burden for companies” so they can compete internationally.