Skip to main content

Water has consumed the daily routine of Chief Eli Moonias, and it's making him visibly agitated.

His small, fly-in reserve in Northern Ontario has had a boil-water advisory for seven long years, and there is no end in sight.

Now he feels the long-term quality of the water that surrounds his reserve may well be at risk, too.

Mining companies have flooded into the James Bay lowlands, into the area now dubbed the Ring of Fire. They've found an enormous expanse of chromite, enough nickel for a mine and other metals that may hold potential in future years.

The mining holds the promise of thousands of jobs over the next decade, if not longer – as long as the proposals can pass environmental muster and garner the support of the region's first nations. But chromite also poses significant challenges to the environment that can be difficult to manage.

"We know we're going to get some benefits once they start development. We know that in some ways, we'll be involved as well. The issue is the environment," says Mr. Moonias.

He looks at development in the oil sands and hears about the inedible fish and the poisoned Athabaska River. He vows never to let anything like that happen to the Albany and Ogoki rivers that flow through the muskeg and meet at Marten Falls.

"It's not only fish, it's the animal kingdom. It's not only us, it's everybody. It's the planet. You can't jump [with] a careless plunge into development. You have to know what you're doing to your future."

It's no surprise that water is constantly on his mind. It's also on the mind of the first nations protesters who have taken to the streets in cities across Canada and blocked roads over the last few days in the Idle No More effort.

"The protection of water is a sacred obligation to indigenous people. Without clean water, life will cease to exist. Our obligation to protect water is an overall respect for life itself," said Chief Isadore Day of the Serpent River First Nation, near Elliot Lake, in an e-mail as he wrapped up a weekend protest that briefly shut down the Trans-Canada Highway.

Protection of water is a large part of what has driven his people into the streets, Mr. Day said. Ottawa's latest omnibus bill changes the Navigable Waters Act to remove federal oversight from all but a few of Canada's lakes and rivers – without consulting the people whose health and livelihoods depend on them.

"This is why our people are opposed to the omnibus bill; it blatantly disregards water," Mr. Day said.

Every indigenous community in the world has protocols that impose a responsibility to protect water, he added.

In remote Marten Falls, it's the concern about what will happen to the water that stands between Mr. Moonias and full-out support for mining activity.

"We don't want to shoot ourselves in the foot," he says.

Chromite mining is new to Canada. Proposals by Cliffs Natural Resources would see open-pit mining as well as underground operations over the next 30 to 40 years. Environmentalists fear contamination of the nearby waterways as well as toxic residues and disruption of wildlife, including endangered species, but Cliffs says it can keep a tight lid on any damage.

And then there's the need for a transportation corridor to ship the ore off to the Sudbury area for processing. Environmentalists are worried a proposed 350-kilometre road through the pristine boreal forest and over several major waterways will bring pollution and wildlife disruption.

Both the mines and the corridor need to pass provincial and federal environmental assessments in order to get the green light. Several first nations are fighting the process in court, asking for public hearings and a regional examination of the cumulative effects of current and future projects.

But ironically, a road of some sort may help with Marten Falls' short-term drinking-water concerns. The band wants the road to be rerouted so that it would actually go through the community, connecting it to the outer world by land year round for the first time. Marten Falls also wants to be involved as a partner in the financing and building of such a road.

The result would be ready access to the community, bringing in cheaper supplies and professional help that Marten Falls requires frequently to keep its water system in good shape.

Mr. Moonias is convinced it's the high cost of flying in bottled drinking water that is prompting the federal government to suggest a quick but insufficient fix to the local water system. The filter in the existing system has a hole in it and mounting pressure could push the tank to blow – a danger to the people who work there.

"Here's our problem. The band has been allowed water from town since 2005. Now they want to come in here and install reverse osmosis so they don't have to buy the water. They want to do it the cheaper way," Mr. Moonias said.

"Why try to cover a festering wound with an adhesive?"

The plant was built in 1986 and upgraded in 1997, but local officials say it was done on the cheap. The filter has never done an adequate job, and water quality results have been hit and miss. That led Health Canada to slap on the boil-water advisory in 2005.

The federal government's response is to pay for a study of the issue and look to the recommendations about whether to build a new water plant or simply try to repair the existing system.

In the interim, Ottawa is suggesting a temporary reverse-osmosis system that would provide drinkable water but would require residents to walk down to the plant and carry it home in buckets. Mr. Moonias has said no to that idea, just as his community vows to say no to any mining activity that does not protect the waterways.

It's a message that resonates throughout his small community.

"I'm scared they'll ruin the environment, the river," said Janet Coaster, a hall monitor at the local elementary school. "The animals will be poisoned and we won't be able to eat them."


Some of the key players in the Ring of Fire mining development in Northern Ontario:

First nations: The Ring of Fire is spread over the traditional lands of the Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations, and will likely affect the lives of people living in Fort Hope, Neskantaga, Attawapiskat, Aroland and Nibinamik. They are among the most disenfranchised communities in Canada, dealing with low levels of education, huge levels of unemployment, suicide and rampant drug addiction. Most of the communities are reachable only by air or by winter road.

Cliffs Natural Resources: A Cleveland-based multinational mining company that produces iron ore in Brazil, Australia, Minnesota and Labrador. Cliffs wants to spend more than $3-billion to develop its solely owned Black Thor chromite deposit through two open-pit mines and later an underground mine, a development that would span 30 years. The ore would be refined near Sudbury, Ont.

Noront: A Toronto-based company that focuses on exploring and acquiring base-metal interests. It has invested $100-million in exploration of the Ring of Fire since 2007. It wants to start mining its Eagle's Nest nickel-copper deposit by 2016, with a life expectancy of 11 years.

Government of Ontario: The provincial government has jurisdiction over natural resources and mining, so many of the permits needed to develop Ring of Fire come from Queen's Park. Ontario also has to give environmental approvals, and is working with Ottawa on an environmental assessment not just of the projects, but also the infrastructure. Ontario negotiated a deal with Cliffs to build a smelter near Sudbury. The provincial government won't give specifics on what kind of hydro subsidies or financing they offered for transportation to the mine site.

Government of Canada: The federal government has responsibility for aboriginal affairs. Ottawa also conducts environmental assessments of the road and mining developments, and will likely help fund some of the infrastructure needed to make the projects viable. But perhaps its most poignant involvement in the Ring of Fire is political. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made "responsible resource development" his principle philosophy, one that reaches into almost every federal department and policy.

Interact with The Globe