This is familiar turf for Michael Gravelle. He is in his second stint as Ontario's point man on northern mining, an increasingly high-stakes gig rooted in his own backyard.
His hometown of Thunder Bay is the gateway for the Ring of Fire, which he bills as the biggest Ontario mining project in a century. Governments at all levels are eyeing the potential of Northwestern Ontario's vast untapped resource deposits, while mining services companies set up in the city hoping to catch a multibillion-dollar boom.
But slumping commodity prices, environmental questions and delays threaten the Ring of Fire, which lies about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, and hopes of a windfall in the region. One company has halted its environmental review, while First Nations and Thunder Bay's mayor say the province has been slow to act.
Cue Mr. Gravelle, the local MPP who, five months ago, was shuffled back to the job of Minister of Northern Development and Mines. He is optimistic despite setbacks and tensions.
"I have an opportunity to help be someone that moves this forward," Mr. Gravelle said this week over coffee at Thunder Bay's Hoito restaurant. He finished radiation treatment for cancer two weeks ago, but has continued to work. This week, the province gave him help, appointing former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci as its lead negotiator to strike a deal with First Nations on development in the area.
"I see great opportunities for everyone in Northern Ontario, and those in my riding as well," Mr. Gravelle said. "So, what will be will be. What will be will be. We're at a very important stage right now in this process."
The so-called Ring of Fire is a 5,000-square-kilometre crescent of chromite, nickel, copper, zinc and gold – a vast deposit discovered a decade ago in remote Northern Ontario, much of it inaccessible by road and surrounded by nine Matawa First Nations. Interest in development took off when Mr. Gravelle held the mining portfolio from 2007 to 2011. /// The Ring of Fire's proponents say it would be a jolt to the national economy. Tony Clement, the federal cabinet minister responsible for economic development in Northern Ontario, has estimated the deposit's value at between $30-billion and $50-billion.
But for all the talk of economic benefit, Mr. Gravelle said nothing will happen without support from First Nations. That puts pressure on Mr. Iacobucci and former Ontario premier Bob Rae, who is stepping down as an MP to represent First Nations in the talks.
"They want to get going. I think there's been a feeling of frustration," Mr. Rae said after touring the nine communities this week. First Nations want to be approached as equals and are open to development so long as they have a seat at the table, he said.
"This is not about people wanting to delay the project for the sake of delay. It's much more about wanting a chance to be consulted," he said.
First Nations leaders expect Mr. Iacobucci to visit each community several times, said Chief Cornelius Wabasse of the Webequie First Nation.
"This new negotiator for Ontario has to understand the First Nations community-level, grassroots people, not just talk to Bob Rae about what he has experienced," Mr. Wabasse said.
First Nations want to share the benefits of development, and see the environment as a priority, he said. "We'd like to be able to benefit from any major development in our area, so we can prosper, but we want to be able to do it in a way that satisfies all parties," the chief said.
Mr. Gravelle compares the Ring of Fire to Sudbury's nickel boom a century ago, while Thunder Bay mayor Keith Hobbs hopes his city will be "the next Fort McMurray." referring to the home of the Alberta oil sands. "But we're hoping to do it right," he added.
Mining exploration around Thunder Bay surged over the past decade, but has slumped in recent years, in part because of declining prices for gold.
"That major pullback, and how long it lasts, is the question, so people are just sitting on their hands on waiting it out," said Michael Thompson, president of Fladgate Exploration, a consulting firm in Thunder Bay. While the region has many projects beyond the Ring of Fire, venture capital for junior explorers is "relatively non-existent" and deposits are far-flung and hard to reach, he said.
The Ring of Fire could spur that development, for instance, if governments build roads that would reach other potential mine sites, Mr. Thompson said.
Two companies have proposed projects in the Ring of Fire. Noront Resources Ltd. expects to finish its environmental assessment this year. But Cliffs Natural Resources suspended its assessment on June 12, saying it needs to wait on governments and First Nations to strike a deal.
"Given the current unresolved issues, we cannot and will not unilaterally move the process forward," the company said in a statement.
Mr. Rae will meet with chiefs in Thunder Bay this week. The federal government "is focused on working with all stakeholders to ensure the potential of the Ring of Fire becomes a reality," a spokesman for Mr. Clement said. Many of the barriers – such as lack of roads, First Nations concerns and water treatment – require federal involvement.
The Ontario government hopes Mr. Rae and Mr. Iacobucci agree on terms of reference for negotiations within a year, suggesting a final deal is a long way away.
"We are really frustrated about the length of time it has taken," Mr. Hobbs said, later adding: "Everybody can get rich on this. First Nations people can get rich on this. The province can, the country can. But it has to be done right. And it has to be done sooner than later. We're tired of hearing, 'It's going to happen, it's going to happen.' It needs to happen."