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Chief Cornelius Wabasse, left, from the Webequie First Nation, and Chief Bruce Achneepineskum from the Marten Falls First Nation, attend a news conference with Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Northern Development and Mines Minister Greg Rickford in March, 2020.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Virginia Heffernan is a mining writer and the author of Ring of Fire: High-Stakes Mining in a Lowlands Wilderness.

One of the barriers to development in the Ring of Fire, a mineral-rich area in Ontario’s far north, is lack of trust. The Ring of Fire metal deposits lie within Treaty Nine lands. Signed by the Crown and the region’s First Nations at the beginning of the 20th century, the treaty allowed the Crown to acquire land from Cree and Ojibway peoples in the James Bay Lowlands for white settlement and resource development. In exchange, Indigenous peoples were promised cash payments, reserves to live on, education for their children and hunting, fishing and trapping rights.

But the Crown established the reserves on the least desirable land. It sent Indigenous children to residential schools, where they were stripped of their language and culture and often abused. It granted private entities the right to exploit the region’s natural resources with little to no compensation for – and certainly no revenue sharing with – Indigenous communities. As a result, many of the residents of the James Bay Lowlands live in poverty, deprived of some of the most basic human rights, including clean drinking water and housing. Is it any wonder many distrust promises made by government and industry?

The in situ value of the metals in the 5,000-square-kilometre crescent of ancient volcanic rock running through their traditional lands – chromium, copper, gold, nickel, titanium, vanadium and zinc – is in the tens of billions of dollars and growing as exploration in the region proceeds. But the remote deposits remain worthless without infrastructure, namely a 350-kilometre all-weather road to transport the metals to market.

Under the Constitution, the Crown has a duty to consult and accommodate First Nations before either the mines or the road can proceed. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by Canada in 2021, takes these rights even further by requiring “free, prior, and informed consent.” The First Nations hold the key to development.

So far, the provincial government and industry approach to consultation and development in the Ring of Fire has been flawed. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by both the public and private sectors since the discovery of the Eagle’s Nest nickel-copper deposit in 2007 to advance the deposits to production. But there is little to show for all that money, time and effort.

Early attempts by then-premier Kathleen Wynne’s government to negotiate a regional framework with the Matawa Tribal Council representing nine First Nations in the region ultimately failed, largely because the province assumed the Nations would speak with one voice. Decision-makers at Cliffs, a large U.S. steel producer prepared to spend hundreds of millions to develop the Ring of Fire chromium deposits, threw up their hands in frustration a decade ago when meeting after meeting with the provincial government came to naught. Cliffs’ chief executive at the time stated publicly that the Ring of Fire would never be developed in his lifetime.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is determined to change that narrative. He and his Conservative government envision a future that involves mining Ring of Fire nickel, necessary to build EV batteries in the province. The batteries, in turn, would fuel a homegrown EV manufacturing hub in Ontario. Ring of Fire Metals, a subsidiary of Australia’s Wyloo Metals, intends to develop the deposits as net-zero emissions mines in partnership with Indigenous and other Northern communities and local contractors and suppliers. Two EV battery manufacturing plants have already been announced for the province: a $5-billion facility in Windsor by joint venture partners Stellantis NV and LG Energy Solution and a battery cell “gigafactory” by Volkswagen in St. Thomas. In Mr. Ford’s vision, all Ontarians, including First Nations communities, would benefit from the jobs and economic prosperity such an endeavour could provide.

But Mr. Ford’s grand plan cannot succeed without the clarity and transparency required to build trust. Some basic questions remain. Why are impact and benefit agreements (IBAs) between mining companies and First Nations kept a secret in Canada? What is the protocol to determine which First Nations must be consulted? How much consultation is too much – or too little? How are the borders of traditional lands defined and what happens if they overlap? Why don’t Canadians know more about how much mining contributes to government coffers in the way of taxes and royalties? Why does it take 15 years to secure permits for mining in Canada?

Neskantaga First Nation says it wasn’t adequately consulted in key Ring of Fire environmental study

Even though IBAs were introduced in Canada 50 years ago, they exist under a shroud of secrecy, the contents rarely made public. The first step toward improving them and learning what works is to insist that mining companies share the details of their agreements. Although every project is different, establishing and implementing publicly available best practice protocols would go a long way toward building trust in the James Bay Lowlands.

Likewise, the concept of consultation and accommodation remains vague. Consultation with First Nations near the Ring of Fire has been proceeding on and off for almost two decades. And yet some Nations insist they have not been properly consulted. A clearer definition of consultation, and the limits of consultation and accommodation, would be helpful to all stakeholders.

Traditional Indigenous lands originally defined hunting, fishing and trapping routes. As a result, they do not follow conventional linear boundaries and can overlap. For centuries, it has been customary for neighbouring First Nations to share land and travel routes. But in the case of the Ring of Fire, if one Nation in an overlapping territory supports development while another is opposed, whose position takes precedence?

The value of minerals and metals to Canada’s economy has historically ranged between 2.7 per cent and 4.5 per cent of GDP, according to the Mining Association of Canada. And disclosure legislation introduced a few years ago requires mining companies to declare payments to governments of more than $100,000. That data show that mining projects contributed a total of about $4.7-billion to Indigenous, municipal, provincial and federal governments in 2020.

But statistics on payments to individual levels of government can be murky. Tax and royalty rates are all over the map, varying from province to province depending on how much companies can claim in the way of tax credits, incentives or tax-free periods for the early days of development and production. Again, more disclosure about how much mining contributes to society in the way of education, health care, infrastructure and other projects is needed.

Permitting is another drag on progress. Few investors have the patience to wait the 10 to 15 years it now takes to secure provincial and federal permits required to put a mine into production. As a result, investment in the sector is plummeting. The total value of mining projects planned and under construction from 2020 to 2030 has dropped by almost 50 per cent since 2014, from $160-billion to $82-billion. It’s ironic that production of the very minerals needed to save the environment is stalled by legislation designed to protect it.

Without better clarity and transparency, the Ring of Fire is destined to be a continuing and expensive boondoggle for Canada. Clearer goalposts, better disclosure and more streamlined permitting could lead to a model of environmental stewardship and Indigenous partnership for the rest of Canada and the world. Perhaps Ring of Fire Metals, the new Australian operator in the region, has brought with it some fresh ideas about how to climb out of the quagmire and onto more solid ground. Canadians, and the First Nations most affected by the potential mines, can only wait and hope.

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