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Ring of Fire environmental assessment takes next step over some First Nations' objections

The environmental assessment on a portion of the road to the Ring of Fire is being led by two First Nations communities, but another affected Nation isn't pleased with Monday's announcement
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, right, Chief Cornelius Wabasse, Webequie First Nation, left, and Chief Bruce Achneepineskum, Marten Falls First Nation, centre, show off their signed agreement regarding the Ring of Fire in northern Ontario at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada's annual convention in Toronto on Monday, March 2, 2020.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

A plan by two First Nations to build a road to Ontario’s Ring of Fire has been approved by the provincial government — but another First Nations community affected by the project is not on board. 

Last year, Webequie First Nation and Marten Falls First Nation published a 253-page document outlining the terms of reference for an assessment of Ontario's proposed road to the Ring of Fire. On Monday, Ontario approved the terms at the massive Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) mining conference in downtown Toronto. 

Monday's announcement doesn't mean the environmental assessment will now start but is a step toward that happening. 

Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse and Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum welcomed Monday's announcement. 

"I look forward to good relationships, and I'm happy that each of our communities will prosper from future development in the Ring of Fire area," Wallace said during the press conference. 

Another First Nations leader whose community and traditional territory are affected by the project wasn't invited to the announcement — but was at the PDAC conference — made his concerns known. 

"We just heard about the announcement that was made regarding the proposed road that's going into our area," said Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias in a YouTube video filmed at the conference, and uploaded shortly after the government's announcement wrapped up. "First of all, we have not provided our free, prior, and informed consent."

He called out the Ontario government and the Ring of Fire Metals company, which wants to build a mine in the region, for not consulting with the First Nation and forging ahead with existing plans.    

"This is unacceptable. This is something that's very concerning for us, and it's something that the CEO and Ring of Fire metals needs to know. You're not going across our river system without our free prior informed consent. You're going to have to kill us. You're going to have to do more than just get access from the province of Ontario." 

Ring of Fire Metals announced a new senior leadership team a few days ago, with Kristan Straub taking over as CEO.

Both the company and Pirie's office responded to the video in separate comments to The Trillium

"Neskantaga First Nation is an important community to us, and we continue to extend an invitation to Chief Moonias to discuss the views of his community with us. We are committed to listening to the views and aspirations of all communities and to making balanced decisions about future development in the Ring of Fire,” said Straub in an emailed statement.

"The announcement today is about celebrating the achievements of Webequie First Nation and Marten Falls First Nation as they received approval for the terms of reference for the Northern Road Link environmental assessment," said Dylan Moore, Pirie's director of communications. "This road would connect their communities to the highway network and the critical minerals in the Ring of Fire. The Duty to Consult will be carried out on all proposed projects in the Ring of Fire and will be subject to Ontario’s world-class environmental standards.”

Dayna Nadine Scott, a York University lawyer serving as an adviser to the Neskantaga Nation, said the Neskantaga Nation has been left out for most of the process. 

"There have been attempts by the consultants for the projects to consult or engage with the Neskantaga First Nation, but there have been no meaningful attempts to actually adopt the consultation protocols that Neskantaga requires," she said in an interview with The Trillium

Neskantaga has outlined on numerous occasions "the way it wishes to be consulted on the road projects, and particularly by Ontario, who is the one that holds a constitutional duty to consult with them," she said. "Instead of meaningfully engaging with Neskantaga on their terms, as Neskantaga's own laws require, the proponent's consultants continue to just send email updates and invite them to webinars." 

"Ontario believes that it can delegate what it calls the procedural aspects of consultation to the proponents," she added. "Ontario refuses to come to the table and try to speak to Neskantaga about their concerns."

The Ring of Fire is a mineral-rich area in northern Ontario key to the provincial and federal government's economic development policies. It contains several deposits of minerals like cobalt and chromite which underpin modern manufacturing of things like electric vehicles and cell phones. The Ontario government has already earmarked nearly $1 billion for developing the road to the remote area.

The project is currently under several different assessments by different levels of government. Ottawa's regional assessment (RA) review was last updated in April 2022, and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault is "considering the feedback received throughout the planning phase of the RA before taking next steps in the process," according to a government website on the topic.

“RAs allow the government of Canada to go beyond impact assessments focused on specific projects to understand the regional context and provide more comprehensive analyses to help inform future impact assessment decisions of these projects," said Kaitlin Power, Guilbeault's press secretary, in a statement to The Trillium on Monday. 

One "would be conducted in the area centred on the Ring of Fire mineral deposits in northern Ontario, approximately 540 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay and 1,000 kilometres north of Toronto. The RA is still in the planning stage. The activities, outcomes and spatial and temporal boundaries of the RA are yet to be determined," she added.

Ontario Mining Minister George Pirie dismissed questions on timelines as "hypothetical" at Monday's announcement. 

"It’s another hypothetical question, there's lots of steps that have to be finished prior to a mining operation being built,” Pirie said.

Last week, federal Natural resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the various approval processes could be sped up, but not at the expense of environmental safeguards and Indigenous consultation. 

He also said Ottawa won't pony up any money until the actual environmental assessments are done. 

The "road" to the Ring of Fire is several different projects commonly lumped together. There's one road — dubbed the Marten Falls Community Access Road — that would connect the Marten Falls Nation to the existing provincial highway network near Aroland First Nation. The second portion — referred to as the Northern Road Link — would connect the Marten Falls road to the Ring of Fire Region, which is just east of the Webequie's traditional territory.

Then, there's another road — the Webequie Supply Road — that would connect the Ring of Fire region to the Webequie's territory. 

Monday's announcement deals with the environmental assessment for the Northern Road Link, not the other two. The Northern Road Link crosses the Attawapiskat river, in Neskantaga's territory, hence Chief Moonis's involvement. 

Last week, Pirie introduced a bill intended to speed up various mining approval processes. MPPs have a lot of time earmarked to debate it this week

This story was corrected at 6 p.m. on March 8, 2023, to reflect that the Ring of Fire Metals company has not yet built a mine in the area of the proposed road. The Trillium regrets the error. 

Aidan Chamandy

About the Author: Aidan Chamandy

Aidan Chamandy specializes in energy and housing. He can usually be found looking for government documents on obscure websites and filing freedom-of-information requests. He hosts and produces podcasts. Reach him anytime at [email protected].
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