Ecologically Unique ‘Ring of Fire’ Needs More Study Before Development, Groups Say

Two Ontario-based environmental organizations are calling on the recently reelected Ontario Liberal government to assess the potential cumulative social and environmental impacts of mining projects in northern Ontario's ‘Ring of Fire’ before mining begins. The ecological services Ontario’s Far North provides Canada and the world are too valuable to take for granted the organizations argue in a report released last week.

“Simply put, this is not a place that can be “offset” or restored if it is damaged or destroyed by poorly planned development,” the report, Getting it Right in Ontario’s Far North, states.

Northern Ontario is the single largest intact extant of boreal forest in the world. It is the last refuge for species at risk such as caribou, wolverine and lake sturgeon and the nesting grounds for thousands of songbirds. The region is a “critical storehouse” of carbon in the fight against climate change. The forests and peat lands of Ontario’s Far North absorb 12.5 million tonnes of global warming carbon dioxide emissions annually, and store ninety-seven billion tonnes of carbon.

The federal government estimates between thirty to fifty billion dollars worth of mineral resources lay beneath ground of the so-called Ring of Fire, a five thousands kilometer squared area (roughly the size of PEI) five hundred kilometers north of Thunder Bay in the northern James Bay Lowlands.

“We need a planning process that is equal to the scale and complexity of the challenge, rather than continuing to depend on piecemeal efforts that put wildlife species and human communities at higher risk in the face of global pressures like climate change and a race for resources,” Cheryl Chetkiewicz, associate conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada, said.

The authors of the report – Wildlife Conservation Society and Ecojustice – detail the need for the Ontario government to change its assessment approach to the Ring of Fire, the largest mineral find in Ontario in decades. The report recommends Ontario conduct a regional strategic environmental assessment (R-SEA) that would investigate the potential social and environmental impacts of mining and associated infrastructure developments on the entire region. 

“Adopting an R-SEA planning process is a way of building consensus around where, when, and in what form development is appropriate as opposed to our current processes that ask communities – social and ecological – to bear the long-term impacts of new development,” Chetkiewicz said in a statement.

Ontario’s current assessment process only looks at the impacts of a proposed infrastructure project or mine when a company applies. This ignores the overall impacts on multiple mining and infrastructure operations in an area that has seen very little industrial development.

First Nations Must Be Decision-Makers Before Mines Are Approved

The report also advocates ensuring First Nations peoples living in the Ring of Fire – the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) and Omushkego (Cree) – have greater influence in the approval process and in a regional strategic environmental assessment of the proposed development area:

“First Nations also must be decision-makers in the process or any development will be mired in delays and conflict,” the report states.

Although the Anishinaabe/Omushkego* have been generally supportive of Ring of Fire development, both groups insist they recieve adequate consultation on the risks and benefits of mining in the area before any project is approved and receive their fair share of economic benefits. 

“R-SEA, by contrast, requires a proactive, participatory approach that engages decision makers such as government and First Nations and other stakeholders, including local communities, NGOs and industry, to determine what the future looks like and how we will get there,” the report concludes.

Last year, the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs warned the Anishinaabe/Omushkego were “some of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in all of Canada,” which could impede their ability to economically benefit from the Ring of Fire development.

Uncertainties In Developing the Ring of Fire Remain

Premier Kathleen Wynne pledged one billion dollars to develop the Ring of Fire during the Ontario provincial election earlier this month but, as the report points out, beyond building a road there are no comprehensive plans for the development. Even the building of the road, an access road, remains in dispute.

It is unclear what exactly Wynne's one billion dollars can accomplish at this stage. And as the newly released report highlights, it also remains far from certain if development can proceed without causing irreparable damage to the fragile ecosystems of Ontario’s Far North.

“We question whether the Ring of Fire can be mined without being a massive financial burden on Ontario taxpayers, or without trashing the province's most pristine watershed,” Ramsey Hart, Canada program coordinator for MiningWatch Canada said in an interview with DeSmog Canada last year.

Chromite, an essential ingredient in the making stainless steel was accidentally discovered in the area in 2008. It turned out to be the largest deposit of chromite in North America.

*Anishinaabe and Omushkego are the names for the “Ojibwe” and “Muskeg Cree” First Nations peoples of northern Ontario in their own languages. The author has used “Anishinaabe/Omushkego” instead of “Anishinaabe and Omushkego” to recognize the interconnection and sharing between these two cultures that has taken place in northern Ontario.

Image Credits: John Cutfeet, Wildlands League; Wildlife Conservation Society Canada: Government of Ontario

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