THUNDER BAY — Two First Nations in Northwestern Ontario say they are taking the lead on the environmental assessment for a controversial road link between the Ring of Fire and the provincial highway system.
They are also asking other First Nations to respect their role in the process.
Marten Falls and Webequie issued a joint statement in advance of the anticipated announcement Tuesday of the official Notice of Commencement of the development of the terms of reference for the Northern Road Link.
It marks the start of a planning process for the provincial environmental assessment for the project, a 120-kilometre north-south road connecting two other proposed projects: the Webequie Supply Road just west of the Ring of Fire mineral zone, and the Marten Falls Community Access Road south of the Ring of Fire.
It's been sharply criticized by the leadership Neskantaga First Nation, southwest of the Ring of Fire.
Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum called the Notice of Commencement a significant milestone for Marten Falls and Webequie that has taken over 10 years to materialize.
"We share a common vision...to change how development occurs in our traditional territory. Today, we are leading the planning and assessment of this project to ensure that environmental risks to our traditional ways of life are thoroughly assessed and mitigated, and that opportunities for First Nations people are maximized," Achneepineskum said.
Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse said the two communities are exercising their jurisdiction and inherent rights, as well as generating the necessary information to make informed decisions about the prosperity of their members through self-determination.
"We are hopeful that our neighbouring First Nations will trust us to lead this planning work responsibly, respecting traditional protocols, clan families and environmental concerns," Wabasse added.
The two leaders said they are committed to detailed, community-directed studies that seek best practices to protect the environment.
They said the process will incorporate traditional knowledge and consultation with First Nations people of all ages.
"Without this project, our people will continue to live in the same underdeveloped conditions, lacking access to drinking water, housing, clothing, jobs health care and education; all the basic needs that other Ontarians take for granted every day," Achneepineskum said.
He said he believes the project has the potential to "finally" bring economic reconciliation for remote First Nations.
Over the next few months, as the co-proponent First Nations, Webequie and Marten Falls will consult with rightsholders and stakeholders to prepare the draft terms of reference for the environmental assessment.
These must be approved by Ontario prior to the start of a complete EA.
Last year, the government of Premier Doug Ford announced a partnership to develop the Northern Road Link with the two First Nations.
It said it was delivering on its promise to move forward with the development of the Ring of Fire "with willing partners."
At the time, Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias called the Ring of Fire a symbol of Ford's "jump on a bulldozer" agenda.
Moonias warned that any road proponent trying to put a shovel in the ground on his First Nation's traditional territory without its permission would have to ensure the project doesn't become "another flashpoint in broader national clashes between governments and First Nations on free, prior and informed consent."