The potential of the Ring of Fire, a large-scale mineral deposit in Northern Ontario, to bring prosperity to Indigenous communities remains trapped under a simmering conflict.
First Nations, governments, and mining companies continue to debate issues such as the responsibility for infrastructure development, support for First Nation communities across much of Northern Ontario, and conflict between the governments of Ontario and Canada.
How can we push through the stalemate to create viable solutions that permit development to proceed?
“The ways and means exist to overcome the conflicts, resistance, and uncertainty facing the mining sector of Northern Ontario”, write the authors.
“Getting there requires acknowledgement of the problems of the past and a commitment by all concerned to be fair and accommodating, and to be respectful of the renewed legal and political authority of Indigenous peoples”.
The report builds on an extensive review of government documents, media sources, and stakeholder reports. It also draws on discussions with over 30 stakeholders from government, Aboriginal communities, and the mining industry, who shared their thoughts about mining and mining-related conflicts in the region.
The stakes are high. Northern Ontario has enormous economic potential that could help address Ontario’s economic woes, provide Indigenous communities with additional employment and business opportunities, and allow companies to invest in the provincial North.
The current challenges – different in scale and complexity but not in kind from those facing other resource development projects – undermine the aspirations of all participants.
Northern Indigenous communities have been unable to effectively engage with mineral companies as they struggle with daily challenges including extreme poverty and high suicide rates. To take one example, the Neskantaga First Nation has been under a boil water advisory for more than two decades. Or consider the well-documented struggles of Attawapiskat, despite its proximity to the De Beers Victor diamond mine and agreements with the company to provide business and employment opportunities. Industry alone cannot undo deep-seated societal problems.
There are positive examples to draw on, including the approach used by the Wabun Tribal Council (WTC) to prepare communities for engaging with development. WTC has negotiated roughly 50 MOUs and exploration agreements and at least 5 Impact and Benefit Agreements over the last 10 years.
In recent years the provincial government has signed a regional framework agreement and created the Ring of Fire Infrastructure Development Corporation, but many key problems persist. Over $6.9 million has been spent on negotiations thus far with little publicly reported progress and no timelines for completion. And $1 billion has been committed for strategic transportation in the Ring of Fire but there has been no infrastructure developed to date and plans remain up in the air. The province has been criticized for failure to include First Nation communities in the process. At the same time infrastructure decision have been largely dominated by industry and First Nations while the provincial government has remained silent.
“Northern Ontario faces a major test in the coming years as it seeks to put the acrimony and uncertainty of the past behind it and forge the new relationships needed to provide opportunity for all in one of the most important resource regions in the country”, write Coates and Hall.
The authors offer several recommendations for a path forward.
- Build a stronger understanding between government, mining companies, and Indigenous communities: It is important that the government create certainty around fees and the permitting requirements for mining companies. The provincial government should lead with industry on the consultations with Indigenous communities, rather than delegating to companies as it has done.
- Overcome disputes about interpreting the treaties: The federal government should make a clear declaration on the importance of the historic treaties in Northern Ontario, paving the way for a new nation-to-nation approach.
- Build infrastructure: The Ring of Fire Infrastructure Development Corporation should have representation from Aboriginal groups, industry, and the federal government. The province needs to lead on determining where key infrastructure should go and what kind rather than waiting on industry to set the agenda for the province. Collaboration with Indigenous communities and industry is essential.
- Build regional plans and agreements: The provincial and federal governments in partnership with Aboriginal communities need to develop plans and agreements that resolve the longstanding social and physical infrastructure needs of communities. Mining should not be the spark that brings Northern services in line with provincial norms.
- Strengthen Community readiness: All stakeholders should access available resources and share best practices on community readiness. However, leadership from the provincial government is needed to close the implementation gap on policies and agreements.
- Encourage Indigenous ownership options: Greater consideration should be given to facilitating Indigenous ownership options in the natural resource sector. Equity participation is likely the next wave in Indigenous engagement and steps should be taken to accelerate this option in northern Ontario.
- Ensure cumulative environmental impacts are part of the review process: In Northern Ontario, particularly in the Ring of Fire, greater attention should be paid to an anticipatory environmental review process that examines cumulative impacts and takes a broad view of the potential ecological disruptions from resource activities.
- Focus on creating a strong process: Companies that approach Indigenous communities in an open, non-confrontational manner, communities that listen to company proposals and that seek viable and long-term resolutions, and governments that solve problems, eliminate barriers, and make strategic investments and commitments can, collectively, move the development agenda forward.
About the authors
Kenneth S. Coates is MLI’s Munk Senior Fellow in Aboriginal and Northern Canadian Issues. He is the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation in the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.
Heather Hall is an Assistant Professor in the Economic Development and Innovation program within the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development at the University of Waterloo.
Kenneth S. Coates is MLI’s Munk Senior Fellow in Aboriginal and Northern Canadian Issues. He is the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.
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