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Muskeg, a type of low-lying wetland, is seen in an area near Kashechewan, Ont., in an undated handout photo.HO-Mushkegowuk Council/The Canadian Press

Something hopeful is stirring among the Omushkego communities in Northern Ontario.

The communities, along with Fort Severn and Weenusk First Nations, have hatched a plan to save one of the last vast, untouched areas of the planet from an industry quickly advancing northward to mine critical minerals, blasting through ecologically sensitive areas to do so. They know all too well how hard it is to stop the hungry mouths of the South, with their insatiable need for the resources of the North.

It’s a reflection of the weird contradiction in which the world finds itself: In order to cool a warming planet, the argument goes, we have to mine the Earth for critical minerals to make electric vehicles that will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, destroying the peatlands of the far North – giant storehouses for an estimated 35 billion tonnes of carbon – in the process.

But the Omushkego plan offers an Indigenous-led way forward that would see communities work with industry, allies and government partners to ensure any development is done in keeping with Indigenous knowledge.

The plan is to establish the Mushkegowuk National Marine Conservation Area, which would be led by folks in the Cree communities of the western James Bay coast along with Fort Severn and Weenusk First Nations. This would protect the entire coastline of Washaybeyoh (Hudson Bay) and Weeneebeg (James Bay), with a 20-kilometre coastal buffer – a broad area that the communities call Tawich. Doing so would safeguard traditional Indigenous territories, a globally significant seascape, and a biodiversity hot spot that’s home to polar bears, beluga whales, seals, caribou, migratory birds and more.

In the Cree language, says elder Lawrence Martin, director of lands and resources at Mushkegowuk Council, “Tawich means out in the bay, and every time we talk about going out into the bay we say we are going tawich, way out there.”

“We talk proudly of this being the homelands of our people,” he told me. “Everything we talk about, our stories and legends come from James Bay and Hudson Bay territory, long before they were called that.”

The water and the land are tied together; protecting one means protecting the other. And so corresponding action is needed to protect what’s left of the peatlands, because if the carbon they hold is disturbed, that could have global consequences. Efforts to develop the Ring of Fire for mining threaten to do just that, and those efforts are expanding: Currently, there are more than 31,000 mining claims in the Ring of Fire that span more than 626,000 hectares, and once staked, those claims can’t be undone. Exploration permits have also already been awarded to companies for sensitive areas in Northern Ontario, without the consent of Indigenous communities.

Anna Baggio, the director of conservation for the Wildlands League, says that if 3 per cent of the area was developed, Canada’s entire climate gains from 2005 to 2021 would be undone. “There really isn’t a path here, from a climate-change perspective, of having just one mine developed in the ring. Developing these rich peatlands means someone has to pay the price for the carbon, and we’ll all pay for it. There is nothing for free.”

The Canadian government has said that it will come to the table to protect nearly 86,000 square kilometres, but that the Omushkego vision will require Ontario’s buy-in for the lands it controls – the first three kilometres of the coasts and the 20-kilometre buffer. The good news is that dialogue is happening with the Ontario government, Mr. Martin says. An agreement is crucial, as it would unlock part of the $800-million in federal funding that Justin Trudeau’s government promised to devote to four Indigenous-led conservation projects, including the Omushkego plans, in 2022. That funding, aimed at helping Canada meet its goal of conserving 25 per cent of its land and waters by 2025 and 30 per cent by 2030, would go to the Mushkegowuk Council to protect millions of hectares of peatlands and intact watersheds, and kick-start a conservation economy that could bring housing, infrastructure and permanent jobs to economically struggling First Nations communities.

But time is ticking: There is a June 30 deadline to reach a deal with the province that would allow them to access the federal funds to fulfill the plan.

“I believe that despite what has happened to our people – all the traumas – they are still willing to have a talk with Ontario and Canada and say, ‘lets plan this together, let’s do conservation and critical-mineral strategies planning together,’ ” Mr. Martin says.

Everyone is at the table, and everyone has an interest in the Ring of Fire. We can’t let this moment slip by.

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