By Tiffany Lam and Ryan Moore
A think tank at Ryerson is helping two First Nations oppose the current Ring of Fire development plan in northern Ontario.
The Yellowhead Institute, which develops policy proposals in support of Indigenous jurisdiction, held a fundraiser on Nov. 9 for Neskantaga and Eabametoong First Nations.
At the fundraiser, Chief Wayne Moonias of Neskantaga Nation and Chief Elizabeth Atlookan of Eabametoong Nation said Noront Resources Ltd. and the government have not adequately consulted the relevant First Nations, nor included them in the decision-making process.
“How would you like it if someone came in your backyard and started digging around and then tells you, ‘I’ll let you know if I find something?’” asked Moonias.
Ontario has been in talks with three of the nine First Nations in the Matawa Council: Marten Falls, Webequie and Nibinamik. Neskantaga and Eabametoong are also members of that council, but have not been involved in the talks. The negotiations between the Ontario government and those three First Nations have focused on creating a plan for the construction of year-round access roads to the proposed mining developments with Noront Resources. Marten Falls and Webequie ended up signing mining exploration agreements with Noront Resources.
The roads will pave the way to northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire, a significant mineral region located 540 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. Founder and CEO of Noront Resources, Richard Nemis, a long-time Johnny Cash fan, dubbed the region the Ring of Fire after the famed singer’s popular song.
The company is attracted to the region due to its abundance of chromite, an essential ingredient for making stainless steel. Canada might have the largest deposit of chromite in North America, with mineral deposits in the Ring of Fire worth up to $60 billion, according to the Ontario government.
At the event Friday night, Atlookan called out the government’s “divide and conquer” tactics. Moonias said the government is going forward with development proposals that do not give First Nations enough information about the nature of the projects.
“We are not against development,” Moonias said. “However, we want to do things right, in a way that involves our people, in a way that provides their informed participation and consent.”
Moonias said the Ring of Fire development is an opportunity to demonstrate respect for First Nations jurisdiction.
The Yellowhead Institute was established this fall to reinforce First Nations jurisdiction. It focuses on policies related to land and governance and provides resources for Indigenous communities seeking self-determination.
Representatives from Ontario and Matawa Council signed a community-driven regional framework agreement in March 2014, which stipulates principles for further development. Both chiefs from Neskantaga and Eabametoong First Nations called upon the provincial government to honor those principles, which include recognition, respect, and ensuring First Nations are informed and involved.
“All I get [when] companies want to mobilize their equipment around a certain area in our traditional territory is a little notice [that they are doing it] with no involvement or respect to our land,” Moonias said.
As it stands, Moonias said the government asks First Nations to submit comments or to provide input on a 30-day notice, but Atlookan said their comments were falling on deaf ears. “We want to feel heard,” Atlookan said.
Noront Resources did not respond in time for publication. In an emailed statement, spokesperson Julia Bennett from Ontario’s Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, said that the development is an opportunity to support major economic development for communities in northern Ontario. Bennett wrote, “We take our duty to consult very seriously.”
Moonias said greater community participation was lacking. “What we were thinking of doing is a joint panel process for our communities to have community hearings–where the community can actually hear the experts talk about some of the potential issues or impacts with whatever [Environmental Assessment] it is,” Moonias said.
“The current EA process, whether it’s at the federal or provincial level, doesn’t allow that to happen. You’re basically just submitting something and hoping things just pan out,” Moonias said. “Most times [decisions] falls favourably on the industry and the government.”
In Moonias’ presentation, he showed photos of pristine lakes, expressing his concerns for pollutants threatening the rivers, fish, wildlife and his First Nations’ way of life. Moonias’ presentation said current Ontario Premier Doug Ford has said he would “hop on that bulldozer” himself.
A GoFundMe campaign set up by the First Nations council states that funds will go towards “legal support, [funding] meetings in the territory to strengthen alliances, and [building] capacity to mount a public campaign to stop unwanted development on their territories.”