Newly elected Premier Doug Ford has declared that resource development within northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire mining area will be a priority for his government. However, from an environmental planning and First Nations perspective, this may be more easily said than done.
Mineral deposits in the Ring of Fire lie beneath globally significant carbon-rich peat lands in the Far North of Ontario. The enormous economic potential of the chromite and nickel deposits has sustained industry and government buzz since these deposits were discovered over a decade ago. While there has been intensive exploration and some limited impact-assessment work, little progress in developing these deposits has occurred to date.
The previous Ontario government signed a Regional Framework Agreement with nine Matawa First Nations in 2014 to address revenue sharing, infrastructure and monitoring, and it committed $1 billion to develop an all-season transportation corridor to access these remote deposits. Slumping mineral prices and fractured industry and government relationships with Matawa First Nations have contributed to a lack of consensus on the ownership and use of road routes.
Now that the new provincial government has been sworn in, the challenge will be not only to meet campaign promises to prioritize resource development, but also to address First Nations’ values, interests and rights, and to ensure that the immense ecological value of this area is not compromised. First Nations and their traditional territories deserve a world-class environmental assessment, yet neither current federal nor provincial processes are up to the task of delivering one in this unique and remote subarctic region.
For example, the narrow focus of separate assessment processes for various roads and transmission lines cannot address overall impacts to the region at large, and will do nothing to stave off the inevitable cumulative effects that will arise when the Ring of Fire is open for business. It is well known that mines have limited operational lives and a history of negative legacy effects in remote regions. Enabling access to new deposits and opening up First Nations’ traditional lands require a more thoughtful design and approach to sustainability than has so far been considered.
As with all impact assessments, it is the combination of direct, indirect and cumulative effects of proposed activities or facilities that ultimately matters when it comes to environmental sustainability. In the Ring of Fire, the need for major new infrastructure that will accompany mining proposals demands a rigorous and proactive consideration of potential regional impacts and of the contribution of these land uses to delivering sustainable regional futures.
Taking some time at the outset to consider the regional perspective would assist in addressing cumulative effects, and would help focus and improve the efficiency and credibility of subsequent project-level assessments in the same geographic area. Experience demonstrates that regional-scale assessments can provide greater scope for the identification, evaluation and pursuit of different futures. Comparing the potential impacts of multiple future scenarios can facilitate informed discussion about past and future land use and alternatives, including the routing of infrastructure and how mines and new infrastructure might become bridges to more sustainable outcomes, particularly for First Nations. A regional approach could also offer efficiencies and cost savings by consolidating infrastructure and providing a cumulative-effects framework within which individual projects are considered. Furthermore, regional assessments provide a platform to address fundamental questions faced within the Ring of Fire, such as how many mines and roads could operate in this sensitive region with minimal adverse effects on community well-being and the environment.
A regional approach in the Ring of Fire would consider both its mineral wealth and the need for infrastructure to get the minerals to market. It would address the global significance and sensitivity of the region, which serves as a storehouse for carbon, is crucial in the fight against climate change, offers a stronghold for species at risk and is the basis for First Nations’ culture, responsibilities and rights.
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While the Regional Framework Agreement was a potential governance mechanism for such an approach, it was always constrained by the existing legislative framework. Under Ontario’s Far North Act, 2010, emerging community-based land use plans cannot consider the rate, location and intensity of past and new industrial development, such as the mining proposals and the all-season infrastructure that First Nations will be dealing with in the Ring of Fire. Similarly, Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Act is silent on cumulative-effects and regional-scale assessments. In addition, Ontario remains the only jurisdiction in Canada where environmental assessments are not automatically required for private sector mining projects.
In August 2017, the previous Ontario government broke with the regional table and made separate deals with Webequie, Marten Falls and Nibinamik First Nations to plan and build multi-use roads to the Ring of Fire. Although these processes are advancing with inadequate public consultation and ineffective engagement with First Nations, they continue to enjoy financial and administrative support from the province.
Three separate project-level environmental assessments, an expensive engineering study that did not consider industrial uses and an altogether separate process for deciding the location of a smelter highlight the fragmented approach that has been taken by Ontario to assess impacts and plan development within the Ring of Fire. Accordingly, some of the $1 billion committed by the province would be better spent on creating an appropriate framework for a regional cumulative-effects assessment to address the emerging road, smelter and mining proposals. It is not too late to do so.
Despite the province’s current lack of sufficient legal, planning and policy tools, and the absence of a governance mechanism with First Nations to consider regional and strategic issues in northern Ontario, there may nevertheless be some potential to address these matters under the proposed federal Impact Assessment Act. If passed, this law enables regional assessments to occur, but its cooperative approach requires the support and involvement of provincial and Indigenous governments. This pathway would benefit from the timely provision of federal resources and expertise to assist in designing an appropriate assessment framework.
The new provincial government may offer fresh perspectives and pursue new directions. There are still opportunities for First Nations and the government of Ontario to get it right in the Ring of Fire, but not through multiple and piecemeal project-level impact assessments. The risks are high, but as long as commodity prices remain low, there is time to consider how to develop the Ring of Fire in a sustainable manner that does not simply repeat the well-known adverse impacts on remote communities and the environment that come with new linear infrastructure in remote regions. The Ring of Fire requires provincial leadership that includes a clear road map for the development and conservation of the region, rather than disjointed planning efforts and side deals that divide communities. Above all else, this road map must include a regional environmental assessment, meaningful First Nations and public participation in the decision-making process and a robust cumulative-effects framework for the Ring of Fire.
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