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Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s legislative changes would lift protections on 225,000 square kilometres of land in the Far North and allow development in areas that lack land-use plans.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

The Ontario government is rewriting the way it consults First Nations in the province’s Far North in its attempt to accelerate plans to build a road to the remote Ring of Fire mineral discoveries. But some Indigenous groups that oppose the long-stalled mining project accuse Premier Doug Ford of trying to do an end run.

The Progressive Conservative government’s fall economic statement last month included proposed changes to Ontario’s Far North Act aimed at spurring the construction of an all-season road into the region. Long a booster of the project, most recently estimated to cost at least $1.6-billion, Mr. Ford has previously vowed to jump on a bulldozer himself to get development started.

Situated in the swampy James Bay lowlands, 550 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, the Ring of Fire contains deposits of nickel, chromite and other minerals, but the finds have never been proven to be economical to mine.

Mr. Ford’s legislative changes would lift protections on 225,000 square kilometres of land in the Far North. It would also allow development in areas that lack what are known as land-use plans.

Under the Far North Act, which the then-Liberal government passed in 2010, land-use plans designate whether a piece of land can be developed or not. In traditional territories of First Nations, land-use plans must be arrived at after discussions between the province and Indigenous communities.

But the Ford government’s proposed changes mean the province could potentially develop an area without unanimous First Nations support.

“The piling on will have a result, and it won’t be good,” said Julian Falconer, a lawyer who represents the Neskantaga First Nation in the Ring of Fire. “I, for one, am extremely worried by these sorts of unbridled efforts to exert so-called Crown power.”

While some local Indigenous leaders support the proposed legislative changes and the proposed road construction, others are warning the government to stop “pushing ahead unilaterally” toward mining in the ecologically sensitive region.

Noront Resources Ltd., a Toronto-based junior mining company that owns most of the mineral concessions in the region, has long struggled to move its projects forward. Australia’s BHP Group Ltd., which is currently in talks to acquire Noront, recently told The Globe and Mail that developing the Ring of Fire could take 40 to 50 years.

Despite the long odds of development, Mr. Ford has made claims in recent weeks that the Ring of Fire could soon be part of a domestic supply chain to make batteries for electric vehicles – even though Ontario has no such industry to speak of now.

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His government signalled two years ago it wanted to abandon a collective process involving nine Indigenous communities near the Ring of Fire to approve development and instead make deals with individual First Nations. The government’s fall economic statement last month also repeated a pledge, made by the previous Liberal government, to put forward $1-billion to build a road to the Ring of Fire – if Ottawa provides matching funds.

Some local First Nations say any talk of a road that would connect the region to the provincial highway network 300 kilometres to the south is premature, and all work and legislative changes should cease until COVID-19 passes. Several also suggest money earmarked for a road would be better spent first on clean water and better housing for their communities.

Neskantaga First Nation filed a legal application late last month challenging the environmental assessment process that is under way for part of the proposed road. That assessment is being led by Marten Falls First Nation. It supports the road, which will connect to its reserve.

But Neskantaga’s court application says the First Nation has been “unable to participate in meaningful consultations” or meet the process’s deadlines. It has been under a boil-water advisory for 27 years, there have been two recent community evacuations because of tainted water and COVID-19 restrictions have prohibited gatherings.

“We continue to face these challenges and Ontario is still pursuing and progressing the way they are and that’s something that’s very concerning to us,” Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias said in a phone interview.

In a letter sent last week to Mr. Ford and signed by Mr. Moonias, as well as the chiefs of Attawapiskat First Nation and Fort Albany First Nation, the Indigenous leaders warn the Premier to stop asserting that most of the region’s Indigenous people support development in the Ring of Fire. The letter also says a federal regional impact assessment process announced last year on the potential environmental effects of development in the area should instead be led by First Nations.

“We call on the Premier and the government of Ontario to stop pushing ahead unilaterally toward reckless uninformed development in the Ring of Fire, while at the same time seeking to affix to such behaviour the label of ‘First Nation approved,’ ” the letter reads.

But Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum has a different view, and he says mining in the region could lead to prosperity for his people. While he says the proposed changes to the Far North Act give the government too much power, his First Nation is committed to working with the province.

Marten Falls has also been working with Noront and was issued more than 300,000 shares in the firm in 2019. (Those shares traded at lows near 15 cents that year, but have surged to close to 80 cents recently.)

Mr. Achneepineskum wouldn’t comment on Neskantaga’s lawsuit, but he said he did not believe in stopping the environmental assessment of the road. “That would be shooting myself in the foot,” he said.

Greg Rickford, Ontario’s Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, declined to comment on the Neskantaga legal action, but said Ontario is working with First Nations and Ottawa to improve drinking water.

He also said his proposed changes to the Far North Act, which the provincial Liberals passed in 2010 amid Indigenous objections to mining exploration, would remove a barrier for First Nations that are seeking to allow development on their traditional lands, or to protect them.

The changes were the result of extensive consultations with Nishnawbi Aski Nation (NAN), an umbrella group that represents First Nations in the area, the minister said. And he points to a supportive statement from NAN Grand Chief Derek Fox on the new bill.

Mr. Moonias said NAN does not speak for his First Nation, although Neskantaga is a member.

Mr. Rickford said First Nations will still be able to draw up land-use plans. He also points to provisions that would allow the setting up of a joint committee of First Nations, which he says would be “consensus-based,” to mediate disputes over land-use between those with overlapping territories. Even so, final approval of its decisions would remain up to the minister.

As for the proposed road to the Ring of Fire, Mr. Rickford argues it is not primarily about mining, but about providing the region’s First Nations with more reliable electricity (most still use diesel generators), clean water and broadband internet access.

Since 2012, Ontario has repeatedly asked Ottawa for assistance in building the road.

But after close to a decade of rejection by the federal government, internal documents obtained under freedom of information legislation and provided to The Globe by researcher Ken Rubin suggest Ottawa is starting to warm up to the idea.

“The Federal position is that Canada would consider cost-sharing construction of all-season roads in the Ring of Fire, should Ontario decide to include it in its list of projects under Infrastructure Canada’s funding envelope,” Jeff Labonté, an assistant deputy minister with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), wrote in a memo in April.

But Mr. Labonté also pointed out that there are still multiple stumbling blocks to development, including significant environmental concerns and objections from First Nations. The Ring of Fire, he wrote, is home to one of the last native boreal forests in North America and situated in one of world’s biggest expanse of peatlands, making it a major carbon sink (which helps lower atmospheric carbon dioxide).

According to the documents, the federal government showed new interest in funding the road in 2019, after Mr. Rickford sent a direct appeal in which he called the region a “multibillion-dollar project of national significance.”

“We recognize the considerable economic potential presented by sustainably developing mineral resources in the Ring of Fire,” Seamus O’Regan, then-minister of Indigenous Services, said in response to Mr. Rickford.

Mr. O’Regan encouraged Mr. Rickford to formally apply for funding with the Department of Infrastructure and to consider contacting the Federal Infrastructure Bank. But he also said federal help would be contingent on all affected First Nations communities being on board.

Reiterating that sentiment, a spokesperson with NRCan, wrote in an e-mail to The Globe last Friday: “We will continue to listen and to support First Nations’ needs as well as to work with First Nations to increase capacity and readiness to advance economic opportunities, including resource development. Advancement of developments in the Ring of Fire must take place in partnership with all affected First Nations.”

However, as the federal government warms to investing in the Ring of Fire, it also has put up hurdles that potentially slow development for major resource projects across Canada.

Last year, then-federal environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who is now the Liberal government’s Natural Resources Minister, announced plans for a regional environmental impact assessment for the Ring of Fire under Ottawa’s new stricter legislation meant to scrutinize big projects such as pipelines and mines.

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