Kathleen Wynne’s government says it likes to get relationships right: It pledged to get things right with the feds in the 2016 Ontario budget. In a 2015 address to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, Wynne herself committed to “getting it right” when it comes to Queen’s Park’s relationship with cities.
Wynne often uses the phrase when discussing Ontario’s relationship with the Matawa tribal council, whose lands and lifestyles the proposed Ring of Fire mining development — consisting of huge chromite and nickel deposits nearly 600 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay — could alter considerably.
When critics allege progress on that file has stagnated, Wynne again stresses the importance of “getting it right.”
However, in recent months the premier has tried to speed up the Ring of Fire’s development and events from last week suggest “getting it right” may have been a sound approach after all.
In May, the premier wrote an open letter to Matawa chiefs urging them not to “squander” the $1 billion commitment her government had made in 2014 to building transportation infrastructure on their territory — infrastructure that would also support the Ring of Fire. Wynne said she needed to see “meaningful progress in weeks, not months.”
Months later, Wynne appeared in Thunder Bay to announce the government had at last “reached an agreement to build a road into the Ring of Fire.”
On August 21, she announced that the government had commissioned a study considering electricity requirements, broadband connectivity, and year-round road access from the provincial highway grid near Pickle Lake east to Nibinamik and Webequie First Nations. The study would determine the best course east from Webequie into Noront Resources’ proposed Eagle’s Nest mine, the first expected development in the Ring of Fire. A separate study would consider a road north from Greenstone to Marten Falls First Nation. Wynne said shovels would be in the ground within two years.
“Because there was a careful process,” she said, “because it was a thoughtful process; because it was one that meant there were many partners working together. We now have a plan and we’ve now got an ability to move forward in partnership that would not be possible if we hadn’t taken that time. That has been our objective all along.”
Three days later, Eabametoong and Neskantaga First Nations issued a joint press release calling the announcement “premature.” The communities, which lie south of the proposed road, alleged that Wynne was acting in violation of frameworks her own government had created — frameworks intended to produce consensus decisions among Matawa communities.
“The reality is that all roads to the Ring of Fire traverse the territory of our nations, and nothing is happening without the free, prior, and informed consent of our First Nations,” Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias said in a release.
Nibinamik and Webequie chiefs last Friday shared a different map from the one Wynne had released few days prior. It notably omits the eastern leg between Webequie and the Ring of Fire. Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse said his community had only signed off on the study to consider connecting Nibinamik and Webequie First Nations to the highway grid.
Ministry of Northern Development and Mines staff stated the chiefs had received the province’s version of the map before the announcement was made. They also stated that the final stretch of road into the Ring of Fire was Webequie’s initiative and the First Nation will be exploring route options to the mine site this fall.
Nibinamik Chief Johnny Yellowhead says he was caught off-guard by Wynne’s announcement, which he was unable to attend due to a number of crises ongoing in his community.
“Ontario was really pushing that they wanted to get this this agreement between Webequie and Nibinamik signed off,” he said. “I didn’t know it wasn’t properly addressed that there was going to be a big announcement. And [if I were] the two First Nations [Eabametoong and Neskantaga], I’d be upset, too.
“Ontario is saying the shovels will be in the ground in 2019. After all these studies have been done, it gets to the point where we have to distribute that information to the community to get ratification and consensus. There are protocols we have to follow.”
The Wynne government has repeatedly said “getting it right” with Matawa could serve as a blueprint for fostering better relationships with First Nations throughout the province. It has repeatedly stressed the importance of getting the Ring of Fire development done right, not fast. The fallout of last week’s announcement demonstrates the potential pitfalls of moving too quickly.
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.
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