When Bob Rae's job as interim Leader of the Liberal party ends next month, chiefs in Northern Ontario say they expect him to be their voice at the negotiating tables where first nations and governments will decide how to proceed on the potentially massive Ring of Fire development.
The native leaders were in Toronto on Wednesday to talk about the resource project with Premier Kathleen Wynne.
They asked Ms. Wynne to join them in launching community-driven talks about the exploration and exploitation of minerals, including chromite, nickle and copper, that have been found in the region west of James Bay – an enterprise that could last decades, creating thousands of jobs and huge wealth for the province.
"As nine first nations, at a regional level, we will appoint one senior negotiator who will report directly to our chiefs' council," the chiefs told Ms. Wynne in a statement prepared in advance of the meeting. "Subject to final arrangements and his acceptance, we plan to appoint Bob Rae to this position. We are asking you to appoint your own senior negotiator who will report directly to cabinet."
Mr. Rae refused to discuss the matter on Wednesday.
If he took the job, he would not necessarily have to step down as a Member of Parliament. Conflict rules state that an MP is allowed to carry on his or her "occupation" while working as a federal politician. If an MP is a lawyer, as is the case with Mr. Rae, he or she is not permitted to take a job that is paid out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Government of Canada. In this instance the funding for the process has not yet been established.
What is clear is that, as of April 14 when the Liberals elect a new leader, Mr. Rae will be returning to the rank and file of the third party in the House of Commons. That job is unlikely to be enough to interest him and the native leaders are certain they have convinced him to act on their behalf.
"Bob Rae is going to be our negotiator when we have a regional strategy and we sit down with the government," said Peter Moonias, the Chief of the Neskantaga who was part of the delegation meeting with Ms. Wynne."
"Mr. Rae has a track record of being a leader in two political parties and he's negotiated a number of projects and he has a political history," Mr. Moonias said. "And, on top of that, Mr. Rae respects the first nations communities and he visited most of them when he was NDP Leader. So we know him from a long way back."
The Ring of Fire could yield $30-billion to $50-billion worth of minerals. And the first nations say they are not opposed to the development. But they demand to be consulted from the outset.
That is what the chiefs intended to tell Ms. Wynne, said Mr. Moonias – that "unless we are fully involved and part of the decision makers in the Ring of Fire area, that no Ring of Fire is going to happen."
Government are worried about jobs, he said, but the chiefs are worried about their people and the environment. "We also want jobs also," said Mr. Moonias said. "But that's only a minor for us compared to the things that we are going to suffer from and we are going to lose."