Before billions of dollars of minerals can be extracted from a potentially massive mining development in Northern Ontario, the industry must engage the first nations people, the federal government's project leader says.
Tony Clement, treasury board president and minister for the federal economic development initiative for Northern Ontario, said the nickel, copper and chromite-rich land known as the Ring of Fire faces many hurdles, but when developed it could yield $30-billion to $50-billion worth of minerals and create about 5,000 jobs in the area.
Before that can happen, the mining industry must understand and work with the aboriginal people that have lived in the region for thousands of years, he said.
The Ring of Fire is a project fraught with industry and community concerns over transportation, power, environmental impact to wetlands as well as the impact on first nations people deeply-rooted in the area.
And dealing with the last of those concerns is a top priority for Mr. Clement.
"Every geologist and miner worth his salt knows that you have to get a proper lay of the land if you are going to strike that elusive vein," said Mr. Clement in a speech to attendees of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada's annual trade show in Toronto on Sunday. "But that goes just as much for the people living on the land as the geology below it."
The Ring of Fire, located in a swampy region called the James Bay Lowlands, first garnered attention in 2007 when a junior miner said it found large deposits of metals such as copper and nickel. It turned out the Ring of Fire also housed one of North America's largest deposits of chromite, which is used to make stainless steel. For Ontario, the mineral-rich area offers the possibility of some much-needed wealth creation.
According to Mr. Clement there are now 30 companies "actively exploring the muskeg and bogs of the Lowlands," and dedicating $80-million to the exploration effort.
One protest was staged in 2010 by a first nations group that did not feel its concerns were being heard by mining companies.
Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod said in an interview Ontario should encourage early talks between the groups.
Mr. McLeod points to diamond mines in the Northwest Territories as good examples of public and private sector working together to benefit industry and aboriginal communities.
For Ohio-based Cliffs Natural Resources Inc., the largest company in the Ring of Fire and the first senior company in the area, the talks are far from over.
"We've spent now three years developing relationships with the first nations community and I feel that's going well, but that work's not anywhere near complete. I'm not sure it ever is," said Cliffs executive Bill Boor.