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Bob Rae plans to work on mining issues with aboriginal communities near James Bay.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Bob Rae has had a few tough assignments in his life, but the job he faces as he departs his federal political career could be one of the most challenging.

Mr. Rae will represent nine different native governments as chief negotiator for the Matawa First Nations in talks with the Ontario government about the opening of their land to the massive Ring of Fire mineral development. There are varying ideas about how to proceed, and even about what his role should be.

The huge impact the mining projects in the remote northwest part of the province could have on the native communities' environment, social welfare and long-term prosperity means there is an imperative to get it right – to ensure that the First Nations walk away from the negotiations with deals that will leave them richer, not poorer.

Mr. Rae, who has been interim leader of the federal Liberals for the past two years, says he recognizes the potential harms and benefits that could befall the people who have trusted him to fight on their behalf.

"I think that the attitude of First Nations toward development is shifting," he said during an interview with The Globe and Mail that followed his announcement last week that he was resigning as a Member of Parliament. "I think that there's a realization of the continuing importance of environmental issues. But I think there's a powerful realization that the era of simply being dependent on government is not sustainable."

Although it is not unheard of for a former leader to make an easy transition to the back benches – Stéphane Dion has managed to do it – it might have been awkward for Mr. Rae, who clearly enjoyed being the face of his Liberal party, to make way for Justin Trudeau.

"Of course I have been thinking for some time about what was I going to do" after Mr. Trudeau was elected party Leader, said Mr. Rae. "Was I going to stay on as an MP after the new leader was chosen, or was I going to think of something else? And this was something that has interested me for a long time."

The two projects at the Ring of Fire – Noront's Eagle's Nest copper and nickel mine and the Black Thor chromite mine of Cliffs Natural Resources – hold out the tantalizing prospect of wealth and royalties for Ontario, a province that is in need of cash. But the mines lie in a region that will require significant development to make them viable – development that will have a profound effect on the local native communities, five of which are not yet accessible by road.

Cliffs suspended the feasibility work on its project complaining there were too many unresolved bureaucratic issues. But that is widely perceived as a delay, not a halt, to the extraction.

"That stuff in the ground is still there; it's not going to go away," said Mr. Rae. There is a huge amount of work to be done to get communities and people ready for the possibility of development, he said.

The mining projects could affect the ground water and, ultimately, the fish that is a main component of the local diet. But Mr. Rae said he is focused on bettering the lot of the communities, not simply protecting them from things such as environmental degradation. The Matawa First Nations have been beset by such social problems as high suicide rates and Oxycontin addiction.

"It's a simple reality that conditions on reserves have to improve in order to allow First Nations people to take advantage of the economic development, and those things need to start now," said Mr. Rae. "They're not going to wait or depend on whether one project is delayed for three months or six months or whatever it might be."

The mines hold the potential for employment and for changing the economy of the regions – for building the roads and the infrastructure that could make life easier for Matawa communities. So there is much positive that could come out of the Ring of Fire, said Mr. Rae. "It's a question of what are the conditions under which this kind of development can work to the benefit of First Nations people."

Chief objectives

The top four goals Bob Rae says he hopes to achieve as chief negotiator for the Matawa First Nations during talks about resource development of the Ring of Fire region:

  • Real improvements in the infrastructure (roads, hydro, broadband) for the whole region.
  • An agreed effort to increase investment in health care, education and training.
  • A new economic relationship with the province, the federal government and the companies doing business in the region.
  • Assurances that any environmental process will involve community meetings and genuine ways of ensuring compliance with essential standards.

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