The federal government has quietly marked the Ring of Fire region of northern Ontario as a potential “priority” mineral deposit, signalling it may be willing to provide funding for efforts to mine there.
The move, mentioned in a May 2022 internal briefing document obtained by The Narwhal through an access to information request, is a significant step for Ottawa. Since 2019, the Doug Ford government has been pushing the federal government to help fund to its effort to build roads needed for mining — the Ring of Fire is currently only accessible by air or ice road in the winter.
But discussions between the two governments had largely stalled since then, The Narwhal reported earlier this year, with Ottawa appearing conflicted. While the federal government previously told the province it’s interested in developing the region, it also said it would only contribute money for road construction if all affected First Nations sign on. Some have, but others haven’t.
The document obtained by The Narwhal shows Natural Resources Canada is now mulling whether it may give the Ring of Fire access roads some or all of a $1.5 billion sum, which was set aside in the federal government’s 2022 budget to develop infrastructure needed to secure supplies of key minerals. The budget itself said that money would go to “priority deposits,” but didn’t specify which ones.
The briefing note obtained by The Narwhal shows only one site as a potential candidate for the money: the Ring of Fire.
In a statement to The Narwhal, Natural Resources Canada spokesperson Anthony Ertl said the Ring of Fire “could be considered” for the $1.5 billion. Although the Ring of Fire is the only area mentioned in the document, he said his department is also looking at eight other locations outlined in a federal discussion paper published earlier this year, and hasn’t made a final decision.
“Significant engagement with First Nations and Government of Ontario must take place before any decisions are made,” Ertl said.
It’s not clear what next steps might be or how lack of consent from any affected Indigenous communities might factor in. But a new avenue for federal funding is the most optimistic sign in years for companies seeking to mine the Ring of Fire, and Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, who made the plan to build roads there a centrepiece of their 2022 re-election campaign.
More recently, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland also said — during a Washington, D.C. speech earlier this month — that Canada must “fast-track” the “energy and mining projects our allies need to heat their homes and to manufacture electric vehicles.” Freeland described this as a “green transition” to preserve the planet and protect democracies from the “curse of oil” that currently makes these countries dependent on “petro-tyrants.”
Dylan Moore, a spokesperson for Ontario Minister of Mines George Pirie, told The Narwhal in an email that his office can’t speculate about the federal government’s intentions but believes the Ring of Fire is a “generational critical minerals opportunity.”
Neskantaga First Nation Chief Wayne Moonias, whose community is located near the Ring of Fire, said he didn’t know it was a candidate for the $1.5 billion. He’s concerned that the federal government is moving towards a decision behind closed doors, without involving his nation. Whatever happens could affect the homelands that sustain them — like the Attawapiskat River, where they fish for sturgeon.
“It’s very disturbing to hear that there’s going to be investments in our region while we have a 27-year-old boil-water advisory and while we have a housing crisis, while we have a suicide declaration since 2013, yet they’re still talking about encroaching and accessing our traditional homelands,” Moonias said. “Our people have not given their consent on these proposed developments.”
The Ring of Fire is extremely remote, located about 540 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont. in the James Bay Lowlands. Its mineral deposits include nickel, a key component of many electric vehicles that mining companies around the world are rushing to secure amid demand for lower-emissions technologies. The region also has copper and cobalt, which, along with nickel, are on the federal government’s list of “critical minerals” required either for Canada’s economic security, or for the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Although successive provincial and federal governments have pushed to kickstart mining in the Ring of Fire for over a decade, those efforts haven’t come to fruition — and one key reason is the lack of permanent roads and other infrastructure.
The peatlands of the James Bay Lowlands are boggy, and constructing anything there is tricky and expensive. In a pitch the province sent to the federal government in July 2019, the estimated cost of road construction there was an average of $2.69 million per kilometre, for a total of between $1.1 billion and $1.6 billion. In June, The Narwhal reported in June the cost has since crept up to $2 billion.
Ontario has, with increasing impatience, asked the federal government to cover half of the cost of road construction: “It is time for us to put pen to paper and develop the contours of a strong cost-sharing agreement immediately,” former mining minister Greg Rickford wrote in a letter to Wilkinson last winter.
Though Wilkinson sent Pirie a letter in August to congratulate him on becoming minister of mines, “no formal discussions have taken place regarding funding for roads to the Ring of Fire,” Ertl told The Narwhal.
Moore said the two ministers have met twice this year — once at a conference in July, and again in August.
“Minister Pirie met with Minister Wilkinson and was encouraged by the shared sense of urgency the federal government has for securing more supply of sustainable critical minerals in Ontario and Canada,” Moore said.
The James Bay Lowlands are an ecologically sensitive area. The peatlands there sequester an enormous amount of carbon, and disturbing them would release it into the atmosphere and harm efforts to lower emissions. It’s also an important wildlife habitat for iconic species like caribou. Environmentalists and some First Nations have big concerns about the potential impact of roads and the mining they could enable.
“The fact that our community really wants to have the… final say on what happens doesn’t fall in line with what the government is trying to do,” Moonias said.
“Especially in a day and age where reconciliation seems to be a buzzword for Canada, and Ontario, it’s not really materializing in our community.”
Roads aren’t just about mining: they could also have a profound impact on First Nations living in the James Bay Lowlands. Many are coping with multiple crises at once due to the ongoing impacts of colonization — such as long-term boil-water advisories, youth suicides, high food prices and poverty.
For Moonias, road access could wreck life as his community knows it: “This is not just taking a mineral or a deposit out of the area, it’s about impacting the way of life, what we’ve done for countless generations.”
For others, roads are a way to connect their communities to the south, bringing better services and economic opportunities.
“These are systemic issues that we’re talking about,” Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum previously told The Narwhal. “Why can’t youth be supported in these kinds of essential things that our forefathers had envisioned when they signed the treaty?”
Right now, the Ford government is pushing to advance three road proposals in the region. The Marten Falls Community Access Road is led by Marten Falls First Nation, and Webequie First Nation is leading work on the Webequie Supply Road. The two nations are jointly planning the third, called the Northern Road Link. (Achneepineskum and Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse didn’t respond to interview requests from The Narwhal.)
“The communities are showing tremendous leadership by working on environmental assessments for their community road projects,” Moore said. “The Ministry of Mines will continue to support Webequie First Nation and Marten Falls First Nation by assisting with the consultation process for all three road projects.”
It’s not clear when, if ever, these roads might be built. Securing federal funding would be an enormous step forward. But the projects still have to pass environmental assessment processes, which take years. In the meantime, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Neskantaga First Nations issued a moratorium on development in the region in 2021, saying they didn’t want anything to go ahead without proper environmental scrutiny and until First Nations get more than “token involvement” in a separate federal review in the Ring of Fire, called a regional assessment.
“We have a profound and sacred duty to ensure that this part of the Earth is not so wounded from Ring of Fire development that it can longer support our relations and ways of life, or help protect the world from catastrophic climate change,” the moratorium read. “The James Bay lowlands stand as one of the last and most important bastions of defence against climate collapse.”
Moonias told The Narwhal he thinks the only feasible way forward is for both levels of government to completely start over on the Ring of Fire — halt all environmental assessments, and try again with the principles of free, prior and informed consent in mind. If they keep pushing forward, he said, his nation will consider all options, legal and otherwise, to protect their homelands.
“Neskantaga will continue to defend its rights,” he said.
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