THUNDER BAY – The province has dissolved a five-year-old Ring of Fire framework deal with Matawa First Nation and says it plans to move forward with bilateral agreements on a community to community basis to get development moving on the multi-billion dollar mining project.
Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines and Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford on Tuesday said the Ring of Fire could support up to 5,500 jobs annually and, despite more than a decade of talks and $20 million in investments, the project has all but stalled.
Ontario’s Conservative government wants to turn that around, he said.
“That’s why Ontario is taking a new, pragmatic approach to unlocking the Ring of Fire’s potential, one that includes working directly with willing First Nation partners who want to move at the speed of business, to ensure sustainable development,” Rickford said in as statement sent to Dougall Media on Tuesday afternoon.
The framework was put in place in 2014 by the previous Liberal government, and agreed to by nine Matawa First Nations communities, a blueprint to begin collective negotiations to develop the Ring of Fire.
Two years ago former premier Kathleen Wynne announced plans to build an all-season road that would connect Marten Falls, Webequie and Nibinamik First Nations to the provincial highway network, a project they said would start in 2019.
Prior to the 2018 provincial election, Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias urged the winner to continue to work with all nine Matawa communities to find a way forward for the Ring of Fire.
At least one of those communities on Tuesday expressed satisfaction with the province’s new plan.
Marten Falls and Noront Resources issued a joint statement, signed by Noront CEO Alan Coutts and Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum, applauding the Conservative government’s move.
“We are encouraged by the Ontario government’s support and commitment to develop, on an expedited basis, the Ring of Fire mineral deposits and associated infrastructure, which will be shared between community and industrial use,” the statement reads, calling the development the single largest economic opportunity for Northern Ontario.
“For communities like Marten Falls, it is an unprecedented opportunity to transform our socio-economic future. The youth of Marten Falls look forward to the Ring of Fire as a generational opportunity that can provide training, employment, business prospects, new revenue for social services and many other opportunities – direct and indirect, for the province.”
Rickford defended his decision as the right way forward.
“By working toward bilateral agreements with First Nation partners on Ring of Fire development, the province will also help address unique community needs and opportunities when it comes to developing the Ring of Fire,” Rickford said.
Noront is the major claim holder in the region, and plans to open its Eagle’s Nest nickel mine, followed by chromite mining once other hurdles, including a road into and out of the Ring of Fire, is built.
The company has already confirmed Sault Ste. Marie will be home to the ferrochrome processing plant, a facility the City of Thunder Bay actively pursued until it was ruled out of contention.
Opposition politicians were not nearly as enthused.
Thunder Bay-Superior North Liberal MPP Michael Gravelle, who helped design the initial framework as the former mines minister, expressed disappointment, saying it has him concerned.
“This was an agreement where I think good work was done. I still think there was good work that needed to be done and I’m somewhat disappointed that the minister has given up on that,” Gravelle said.
Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath called the move a huge step in the wrong direction, calling on the province to tweak the framework rather than tearing it up.
“Ripping up the framework agreement between Ontario and the nine Matawa-member First Nations takes Ontario backwards by a decade when it comes to igniting the Ring of Fire,” said Horwath in a statement while in Thunder Bay for northern caucus meetings.