‘No consent, no Ring of Fire’: Far North First Nations take mining battle straight to Ontario legislature
First Nations leaders kicked out of Queen's Park, after dozens of people travelled thousands of...
Beneath the peat of the James Bay lowlands, about 540 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, lie mineral deposits at the heart of a bidding war between two Australian mining giants.
Wyloo Metals and BHP are facing off to gain control of Canadian junior mining firm Noront Resources. At stake are the nickel deposits in the Ring of Fire that Noront controls — a key component of electric vehicle batteries, and a resource miners are rushing to secure ahead of a forecasted burst of demand.
Both companies are aiming for a climate-conscious image amid a global shift to clean technology, and could define the Ring of Fire’s future as they do it. And both BHP and the billionaire backing Wyloo Metals, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, say if they succeed in the takeover, they plan to forge relationships with the First Nations who live in the region. But each also has a history of contentious relationships with Indigenous people in Australia.
For now, BHP is outgunning Wyloo in the takeover battle, and the two have entered discussions to hash out whether Wyloo, already part-owner of Noront, will back BHP’s bid. It’s the latest development in a long-running saga about environmentally-sensitive land that might make miners billions of dollars — or not much at all.
For more than a decade, governments and mining companies have been pushing to drill below the peatlands of the Ring of Fire, which was named after the shape of the deposits and a Johnny Cash song.
Mining companies first discovered minerals there in 2007, sparking a frenzy as they sought to stake claims. At first the rush revolved around chromite, a key material used to make stainless steel. But as global demand for chromite has dropped, focus in the region has turned to a nickel deposit at a proposed mine called Eagle’s Nest where Noront owns mining rights, as it does in 85 per cent of the Ring of Fire. Miners — 18 companies and individuals — hold over 13,000 active claims in the region.
In past years, governments have claimed the deposits in the Ring of Fire could be worth $60 billion. But much of that total is based on what amounts to an educated guess, as the Globe and Mail reported in 2019, calling such speculation “aspirational hogwash.”
It’s also unclear whether the profits would be enough to justify the cost of getting the nickel out of the ground, considering the impacts of mining such a sensitive landscape. Reaching the Ring of Fire is not simple as there are no permanent roads to the area. Peatland is boggy and difficult to build on. The road would cost an estimated $1.6 billion, which no level of government has committed to fully funding, and Ottawa is conducting several impact assessments that are expected to take years. Miners have also spent $278 million on exploration in the area.
Even so, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has promised to make it happen, famously pledging to build access roads “if I have to hop on a bulldozer myself.” Ford hasn’t jumped on any construction equipment yet, but on Nov. 12, Energy, Northern Development and Mines Minister Greg Rickford, who once sat on Noront’s board of directors, said that the government is making progress, “more than any other government has done in a couple of decades.”
“It’s clear our plan for building Ontario is working,” he added.
In October, Neskantaga First Nation, alongside the Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic at York University’s Osgoode Hall, asked Ontario’s auditor general to investigate the provincial government’s spending in the Ring of Fire. Their position is that the public deserves answers about how and why the province is financially supporting mining claims that do not have consent from all of the affected First Nations.
Northern Ontario’s peatlands sequester an enormous amount of carbon — an estimated 35 billion tonnes, or the equivalent of annual emissions from billion cars. Damaging the sensitive ecosystem would destroy crucial wildlife habitat, and drastically hamper the fight against climate change. It could also cause harm downstream and on the coast of James Bay.
The relatively-untouched muskeg is part of Treaty 9, and home to more than a dozen Indigenous communities who have lived there since time immemorial. Many are coping with overlapping crises with poverty, boil water advisories, soaring food prices and youth suicides. Some support development in the region — Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations, for example, have backed efforts to build access roads and get mining projects started.
Marten Falls is seeking partnerships that will help improve the community’s quality of life, Chief Bruce Achneepineskum said in a phone interview.
“There’s a lack of growth in the community and a lack of infrastructure,” he said. “These are systemic issues that we’re talking about. Why can’t youth be supported in these kinds of essential things that our forefathers had envisioned when they signed the treaty?”
Noront Resources, a small Toronto-based mining company, discovers a nickel deposit in the Ring of Fire, about 540 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont.
Several First Nations blockade mining company airstrips in the Ring of Fire over concerns about consultation, environmental impact and economic benefits.
The Liberal government led by Kathleen Wynne inks a regional framework agreement with the Matawa First Nations and pledges $1 billion to build an access road.
Wynne says she has run out of patience with negotiations with nine of the local First Nations and announces plans to work with Webequie, Marten Falls and Nibinamik First Nations to build roads without securing consent from others.
The Progressive Conservative government tears up the 2014 regional framework agreement. It also starts reviewing the Far North Act, which defines land use planning in a vast area that includes the Ring of Fire.
The federal government launches a regional assessment for the Ring of Fire, which is meant to examine the cumulative environmental impact of development in the area. Australia’s Wyloo Metals buys a 37 per cent stake in Noront Resources.
Others have deep concerns about whether the approval process for road and mining proposals is enough to assess potential risks in the region, and want to see greater priority given to First Nations decision-making. In April 2021, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Neskantaga First Nations declared a moratorium on all development in the Ring of Fire.
“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 no longer support our relations and ways of life, or help protect the world from catastrophic climate change,” they wrote in a statement.
Another concern is that previous mining projects in the Far North — though outside the Ring of Fire — didn’t deliver the prosperity they promised, said Mike Koostachin, director of Friends of the Attawapiskat River, a coalition of local community members and environmentalists from across Ontario.
Attawapiskat First Nation is near the now-closed Victor diamond mine owned by De Beers, which pleaded guilty to failing to report data on mercury levels in local waterways (the company has said that although it didn’t disclose the results, it did take samples and mercury levels were within the approved range). In 2013, amid complaints from the nation about whether the economic benefits of the mine were helping the community, a group from Attawapiskat blockaded the road to the mine. And in 2016, the community experienced a devastating suicide crisis, another sign that any returns from the mine hadn’t been enough to counteract the effects of colonialism.
“There was no benefit in the end,” Koostachin said in an interview.
In the years since the initial rush in the Ring of Fire, the ability of relatively-small Noront to pursue projects there has waned, as the company became bogged down by debt and a lack of proof its efforts would be profitable. Enter Wyloo: in December 2020, it bought a 37 per cent stake in the company, much to Noront’s delight.
“The highlight of this past year was the addition of Wyloo Metals as our cornerstone investor,” Noront president and CEO Alan Coutts said in the company’s 2020 annual report.
Wyloo is a subsidiary of Tattarang, which is backed by Forrest, one of the richest people in Australia with a net worth of $25.3 billion. He made his fortune by transforming Fortescue Metals Group from a junior firm into a global mining giant that extracts iron from the Pilbara region of Western Australia and ships it to China. In May, Wyloo announced it would make an offer to take over Noront.
Melbourne-based BHP is a Fortescue rival and among the largest mining companies in the world. It already has a presence in Canada: just months before Wyloo announced its takeover bid, BHP moved its copper and nickel headquarters to Toronto. In June, BHP made a competing offer for Noront. The companies have been trading blows ever since, and the bidding war has pushed Noront’s flagging stock far above where it was a year ago.
In Australia, where governments have long allowed mining companies to destroy sacred sites, both companies have clashed with Indigenous communities.
Forrest is a controversial figure. In recent years, he has tried to rebrand himself as a climate action crusader. “If you are responsible, you must act,” he told the New York Times in October. Forrest — who made his fortune in iron and steel, an industry that emits more carbon than all of the world’s cars — has pledged that his companies will be carbon neutral by 2030 and said Australia should develop a “green steel” industry, swapping out coal for renewable energy to produce the metal.
In its Noront sales pitch, Wyloo touts Forrest’s “proud and continuing legacy of partnering with Indigenous and local communities.” It’s true that through his Minderoo Foundation, Forrest has worked on training and education opportunities for Indigenous people in Australia. But he and Fortescue have also fought extended battles with Indigenous communities over land rights and mining royalties, both in court and in the press.
Last February, Fortescue finally paid royalties to a group of what’s known in Australian law as Indigenous “traditional landowners” after delaying for a year, allegedly because they asked questions about a mining proposal. In September, Forrest said mining royalty payments — which he called “handouts” — were a cause of Indigenous incarceration and youth suicides, a statement he said was based on his observations growing up with Indigenous people.
Fortescue also has a history of disturbing important Indigenous cultural sites, including an incident where the company bulldozed a sacred freshwater spring. In one case, Elders said they felt forced into signing agreements with the company. In October, the company pushed back against a law that would give Indigenous people in Australia more say over mining in their traditional territories.
Wyloo declined to answer detailed questions about Forrest’s record, citing the sensitivity of the Noront takeover bid. In the past, Fortescue has defended its relationships with Indigenous communities. If Wyloo is successful in taking over Noront, Forrest has promised to prioritize awarding contracts to First Nations businesses, create a training and employment centre, investigate ways to produce battery materials in Ontario and make Eagle’s Nest a net zero-emissions mine.
“Like you are the First Canadians, I hold a deep love and respect for all our First Australians, as they helped rear me from a baby,” Forrest wrote in a June 1 letter to the chiefs of the nine Matawa First Nation communities in Northern Ontario. “Until we meet in person, please accept a big hug from me.”
One of the Indigenous communities clashing with Fortescue in Australia is the Yindjibarndi, whose traditional territory is in the Pilbara, a region of red mountains, caves and eucalyptus trees. The group’s members are registered traditional owners under federal Indigenous title law and are represented by the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation, whose chief executive, Michael Woodley, has led his community in a long, divisive legal fight against Fortescue over fair compensation. In an interview via Zoom from Roebourne, a former gold rush town over 1,500 kilometres from Perth, Woodley warned communities in the Ring of Fire to remain united and “be careful.”
“I think he speaks with two tongues,” Woodley said of Forrest. “Behind closed doors, he has no intentions whatsoever to respect [Indigenous people] in the same way that he values investors and shareholders.”
Settlers colonized Yindjibarndi territory in the 1800s. Many Indigenous people died from smallpox and other diseases; settlers herded many of the survivors to cattle stations where they were forced into servitude.
“We know what the causes of our social problems are,” Woodley said. “I think we can do better … we have to start first and foremost, with having an equal share of the wealth that’s coming out of our country.”
BHP has also run into controversy in Australia. The company made international headlines last year when it received government permission to damage 40 Indigenous heritage sites in an area where it mines iron ore. Eventually, it avoided destroying 10 of them after consulting with Banjima traditional owners — BHP admitted it was aware the community didn’t want the sites destroyed before applying to do so.
In the wake of the scandal, BHP inked a new agreement with Banjima. One of the Elders who signed it, Slim Parker, told the Australian Financial Review in June that nothing had changed, and accused the company of dragging out an investigation into why a culturally significant cave at one of its mines collapsed.
“It is just all good PR relationship building for themselves,” Parker said. (The Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, of which Parker is a director, didn’t respond to a request for an interview.)
In a statement sent via email, BHP spokesperson Jeremy Milne said the company has a “longstanding relationship” with Banjima traditional owners in Western Australia. He also pointed to a mine opening last month where a Banjima Elder, Charlie Smith, credited BHP with working hard to “build the strong relationship that they have today” with traditional landowners. The rockfall at the cave is being investigated by a council that includes Banjima Elders and BHP, with independent experts also working on the site, Milne added.
“BHP is committed to the development of sustainable mining projects and has a history of consultation with First Nations and supporting local jobs, suppliers and communities,” Milne said. The company has operated in Canada since the 1990s — it ran the Ekati diamond mine in the Northwest Territories where, Milne said, it spent over 80 per cent of its budget on northern and Indigenous suppliers before selling its stake in 2013. It has also signed agreements with six First Nations near its potash project near Saskatoon.
BHP, which already owns a small stake in Noront and has a nickel supply agreement with Tesla, is shifting towards metals needed to build renewable technologies as it phases out coal. It might potentially even get out of oil and gas. Its latest offer for Noront, placed Oct. 19, is 75 cents per share, five cents more than Wyloo’s latest bid. Shareholders have until Nov. 30 to decide if they want to take it.
In its pitch, BHP said its offer would give investors the opportunity to cash out at a fair value while avoiding the uncertainty that comes with projects in the Ring of Fire. “Now is the time for shareholders to decide if they want to tender to our improved offer and crystallize the compelling and full value it represents,” BHP chief development officer Johan van Jaarsveld said in an Oct. 19 statement. Noront’s board of directors agreed and recommended shareholders get on board.
The deal doesn’t require Wyloo’s support, despite its 37 per cent stake in Noront.
Dayna Nadine Scott, an associate professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School who researches Ring of Fire development, said the power imbalance between the people living in the Far North and the corporate players fighting over mining claims needs to be addressed in Canada.
“There has to be a better way for us to not let those interests just continue to be erased and wiped away in these decisions that are really so crucial to people,” she said.
The chiefs of eight of the nine nations in the Matawa Council didn’t agree to interviews. Neither did the chiefs of the seven communities in the Mushkegowuk Council, which populate the lands around western James Bay and Hudson’s Bay, and surround the Ring of Fire.
Achneepineskum, the Marten Falls chief, said he’s watching how the situation unfolds just like anyone else. He said his community has a long relationship with Noront, and building trust took a lot of time — it must be rooted in respect for differing opinions, the land and traditional knowledge, he said.
“For any company that comes into our ancestral lands, they’ll have to abide by those same principles,” he said.
Updated Nov. 15 at 11:09 a.m ET.: this article was updated to clarify that the moratorium on Ring of Fire development, declared by Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Neskantaga First Nations, was not in opposition to development full-stop, but until a time when impacts of development can be fully scrutinized through the approval process and First Nations have a fair say.
Updated Aug. 9, 2022, at 9:35 a.m. ET: This article was updated to reflect in Metric measurements, rather than Imperial, the number of cars whose annual emissions are equal to 35 billion metric tonnes of stored carbon.
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