If there’s ever been a time to get it right… Strategic Assessment and Ontario’s ‘Ring of Fire’

The name ‘Ring of Fire’ conjures up daunting images, but when it comes to extracting enormous deposits of chromite, nickel, platinum, copper and gold in a centralized area, and a frequent comparison to the economic potential of Alberta’s oil sands, perhaps the destructive connotations that are associated with such a name are well-suited.

ring[1]

The collection of some 30,000 staked claims from 35 different prospecting companies illustrates how vast the mineral deposits are in the region [1]. Spanning 5,100 km2 of James Bay Lowlands, the ‘Ring of Fire’ is remotely situated 500 km northeast of Thunder Bay, Ontario [2]. Due to the region’s mineral riches, especially in highly sought-after chromite, recent projections suggest that the ‘Ring of Fire’ has the capacity to generate upwards of $60 billion in mineral resources, and approximately $6.7 billion in tax revenue [3,4]. Clearly there is economic incentive to put shovel to ground, but there are barriers demanding consideration before construction begins.

Due to the region’s inaccessibility, the Government of Ontario has been weighing its options for obtaining an estimated $2 billion required for infrastructure investment [2]. This has caused delays to operations, and has brought criticism from opposition parties and industry stakeholders [2]. The potential roadway would cut a 200 km long route through Ontario’s boreal forest and would bring unprecedented access to some of Northern Ontario’s most remote communities [5].

Dotted within and around the ‘Ring of Fire’ are nine First Nations communities. These Nations share similar circumstances to most Aboriginal communities in Canada’s North: a history of exploitation and exclusion; severe economic underdevelopment; a lack of educational capacity; housing shortages; limited access to electricity and internet; and social ills such as substance abuse [6]. Despite these limitations, the communities have unified under Matawa First Nations Tribal Council, and are in a position of power. The provincial and federal governments are required to fulfill their fiduciary duty to consult, and accommodate these communities if their constitutional rights are under threat [7]. Recognizing this, the Tribal Council has hired former Liberal MP, Bob Rae, as their lead negotiator.

Video: http://on.aol.com/video/bob-rae–mining-projects-no-magic-bullet-for-first-nations-517959040

Due to the environmental and social complexity of the region, and the tremendous economic stakes, the obvious question to ask is: ‘Will the government get it right this time?’ The economic potential of the ‘Ring of Fire’ is regularly compared to that of Alberta’s oil sands, but the environmental and social risks of the region seem hauntingly similar as well. Evidence of environmental destruction and negative health impacts on Albertan Aboriginal communities points to an ignorance of cumulative impacts and strategic planning during the early stages of the region’s development. Have governments learned any lessons from the missteps of the oil sands? The Matawa First Nations Tribal Council is taking a stand to ensure they do not suffer the same fate of many Aboriginal communities before them. Will governments follow suit and ensure development is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable? This question remains hypothetical, but the answer will soon be apparent when approvals begin to trickle in and construction begins in the ‘Ring of Fire.’

References

[1] Ontario Business Report. (n.d.). Ring of Fire lights up Northern Ontario’s mining industry. Retrieved March 10, 2014, from http://www.mri.gov.on.ca/obr/?p=1529

[2] Flavelle, D. (2014, February 14). Minister “disappointed” federal budget made no mention of region. The Toronto Star. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/business/2014/02/14/ontario_seeks_advice_on_ring_of_fire.html

[3] CBC. (2014, February 14). Deloitte to help establish Ring of Fire development corporation. Retrieved March 9, 2014, from http://www.cbc.ca/1.2537643

[4] Ontario Chamber of Commerce. (2014). Beneath the Surface: Uncovering the Economic Potential of Ontario’s Ring of Fire. Retrieved from http://www.occ.ca/portfolio/beneath-the-surface-uncovering-the-economic-potential-of-ontarios-ring-of-fire/

[5] Ontario Nature. (n.d.). Ring of Fire Mining. Retrieved March 10, 2014, from http://www.ontarionature.org/protect/campaigns/ring_of_fire.php

[6] Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. (2013, February 4). Action Plan for Supporting Community Participation in the Ring of Fire. Retrieved from https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.documentcloud.org/documents/717490/aborigiunal-affairs-ring-of-fire-briefing-note-a.pdf

[7] Booth, A. L., & Skelton, N. W. (2010). First Nations’ access and rights to resources. Uncertainty and Conflict: Resource and Environmental Management in Canada, 80–103.

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