Roland Okeese is watching with keen interest as mining companies from around the world stake claims in the area around his remote Northern Ontario reserve.
The 36-year-old father of six and grandfather of two is in his prime – strong, healthy and hopeful for a new career supporting the mining activity in the Ring of Fire.
For Mr. Okeese and so many other community members, however, the path from here to there is difficult.
Mr. Okeese knows the wild country well. He’s good with a power saw. He has a few months’ experience doing contract work for Noront Resources. But for much of his adult life, he wrestled with an addiction to the prescription painkiller OxyContin. He didn’t graduate from high school. His formal training is minimal.
“I’d like for the [mining] to happen. I’d choose to be working,” he says defiantly, recognizing that some in his community don’t share his view. “But I don’t have the skills.”
It’s a problem that needs to be resolved soon if a local work force is to benefit fully from the mining activity poised to take off in the Ring of Fire.
Indeed, there is a newly formed consensus among federal and provincial officials, native communities and major companies that aggressive training programs need to be set in place now.
“We’re worried about that because I don’t think it’s too early to get started even right now,” says Bill Boor, senior vice-president of global ferroalloys for Cliffs Natural Resources, a multinational mining company that wants to go into production in 2016 or 2017.
“We need a lot of employees for this type of operation … We’re very anxious to get started.”
The experience of Attawapiskat and the De Beers Victor diamond mine is proving instructive for all parties. Attawapiskat First Nation is on the northern side of the Ring of Fire development. While Victor has a large aboriginal work force, the Attawapiskat community frequently complains that it doesn’t get its share of the bounty from the mine.
A federal review of the relationship between Victor and Attawapiskat shows that government support for training and capacity did not start soon enough to deal with the huge lack of skills in the first nation.
This time, all sides say they want to do it right – and that means starting now.
Toronto-based Noront, which wants to open a nickel mine, is in the midst of forming a coalition with the drilling program at a college in nearby Thunder Bay, and looking at ways to bring the training programs into local communities so that potential workers don’t need to travel far from home.
The company aims to have a third of its workforce requirements filled by local aboriginal workers, far higher than the national mining sector average of about 8 per cent, says Leanne Hall, Noront’s vice-president of human resources.
While Grade 12 is usually a basic requirement for any job even distantly related to mining, Ms. Hall says her company is considering training options that would take life experience and traditional knowledge into account.
That would probably be good news for Mr. Okeese, who says he has kicked his addiction and knows the vast forests and waterways as if they were his own backyard.
“I’m good at how to survive in the bush,” he says.
Cliffs is taking a different approach, talking to first nations about predevelopment agreements that would map out a framework for getting communities ready for eventual mining, and would serve to bring first nations officials up to speed before they get into more formal negotiations for impact-benefit agreements.
Government, too, appears to be gearing up to put the necessary tools into place.
While there is no rule requiring any company to hire from local first nations, employment is likely to be part of the benefit agreements they negotiate with the mining companies operating in their traditional lands.
And it often makes business sense, since first nations peoples feel at home in the wild, remote area 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, and are likely to stick around.
But more often than not, the older generation on the Ring of Fire reserves says the younger generation has checked out, overwhelmed by poverty, poor education, nothing to do and the temptations of addictive drugs.
Janet Coaster lives in a small house with nine or 10 other people on the Marten Falls reserve, near the Ring of Fire, and has heard a bit about the mining development. Ms. Coaster works as a hall monitor at the local school, and she wants her kids to find work too.
She is keeping watch for potential training programs, but she knows her kids have to finish school if they want a decent position in the future.
“I hope they get their education and a proper job,” she says.
So far, though, her 14-year-old gave up after a few months of being away from home in Thunder Bay for high school. And her 18-year-old, Alison, says she is taking a year off from school to take care of her new baby Andrew.
Her plans for the future? She hasn’t thought that through.
Their chief, Eli Moonias, tells a story about fish that have spent generations in an aquarium. Even when the glass is removed, they continue tread water.
“The reserve is kind of like that. It’s dangerous conditioning,” he says. “It creates a dangerous bottleneck.”
RING OF FIRE FACTS
An area 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont., in the James Bay lowlands, in the traditional territories of several first nations. Chromium is the Ring of Fire’s main claim to fame, but there are also proposals to mine nickel there, and hopes for copper, zinc, gold and palladium. There are about 100 mining companies with holdings, but only 35 of them are actively exploring, and just two of them have actually proposed mining.
Ore containing chromium used to make ferrochrome, the “stainless” in stainless steel. When exposed to air it reacts to form a thin oxide surface layer that prevents rusting.
Growth in emerging markets like China has ensured that the stainless steel market is somewhat stable in coming years. About 14 per cent of the world’s chromium is consumed in the United States, although there is almost no domestic production, making the Ring of Fire deposit attractive.
About 70 per cent of the world’s chromium reserves are in South Africa and Zimbabwe, with additional resources in Finland, Kazakhstan, Turkey, India and Brazil. The global market for ferrochrome is dominated by South Africa, Kazakhstan and India. It is also supplied through recycling. The earth is rich with chromite, and world resources of shipping-grade chromite are already sufficient to meet world demand for centuries.
The Ring of Fire area is pristine, having never experienced industrial development before, making it one of the last intact, original forests on the planet. Its muskeg – sponge-like ground cover that frequently gives way to lakes and rivers – is difficult to build on. The wetlands are home to half of Canada’s largest rivers. The area supports many species at risk. The huge expanse of peat is a major carbon sink for Canada.
Stainless steel in North America has long been produced with imported ferrochrome. The Ring of Fire deposits represent the most significant chromite discovery made in North America, and possibly one of the largest in the world.