Neither Premier Kathleen Wynne nor the Ontario Liberals generally are predisposed to playing the heavy with Indigenous communities. The Grits won the 2003 election partly on a pledge to establish better relations with Indigenous people, in contrast with the acrimony — and violence — of the Mike Harris years. Wynne has made reconciliation a personal mission in her time as premier.
So it was notable that she wrote a letter this spring to the Matawa Chiefs Council urging a speedy resolution to negotiations on developing the Ring of Fire, a mineral-rich region northeast of Thunder Bay that’s smack-dab in the middle of multiple First Nations territories. Wynne said she hoped for “meaningful progress in weeks, not months” on an agreement to build transportation infrastructure to the chromite and nickel deposits there.
Well, it’s been months, not weeks, yet the government has announced no major progress on an agreement, and the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines had no new details to report this week in response to inquiries from TVO.org.
“Ontario has been meeting regularly with Matawa member First Nations to advance meaningful progress. Our government is hopeful to be able to speak publicly about this progress in the very near future,” Minister Bill Mauro said in an email Tuesday.
Former premier Bob Rae was named the negotiator for the Matawa First Nations, a group of nine Indigenous communities close to the Ring of Fire. He declined to comment except to say that the ongoing negotiations have been “in my view productive and positive.”
Mauro’s “very near future” tease notwithstanding, this is just the latest missed deadline on the Ring of Fire, the development of which has been a key part of Liberal plans since the 2010 budget. In 2013, American mining giant Cliffs Natural Resources abandoned its efforts in the province citing costly delays and lengthy negotiations with the government and with First Nations in the region.
Since then the Liberals have periodically signalled their seriousness about developing the mines, including with a pledge to spend $1 billion on transportation and energy infrastructure. (Of course, they haven’t had to cut a cheque thus far, because there’s been so little progress on the ground.) The most substantial milestone has been the government approving — two years ago — the first steps in an environmental assessment for a potential road connecting the Ring of Fire and nearby First Nations to the provincial highway network.
Even if the government were to announce an agreement with the local First Nations this week, it’s nearly certain at this point that the Ring of Fire will see its third provincial election cycle since 2010 pass without substantial construction having started. While all involved are sincere enough in their desire to see progress, the region is just one of many competing priorities.
Indigenous communities have more immediate day-to-day concerns than a mining development that will provide benefits years from now (if at all), and history gives them plenty of reason to be skeptical; meanwhile, the government has been busy for a year putting out political fires in the electricity and housing sectors.
(Mauro, when he’s not the Minister of Northern Development and Mines, is the Minister of Municipal Affairs — and between Ontario Municipal Board reforms and land-use planning reviews, he’s been plenty busy.)
This isn’t to say things aren’t happening. One of the companies still invested in the Ring of Fire, KWG Resources, has been trying to generate interest in Chinese investors for a rail line. Noront, the biggest single company still invested in the region, is looking for a potential chromite smelting site somewhere in northern Ontario, and representatives from the company were recently touring Thunder Bay. But there’s no realistic chance of anything happening until there’s a signed agreement between the government and the First Nations.
Which brings us back to Wynne’s letter in May: whether or not it sped up negotiations, the missive caught the attention of leaders across northern Ontario, where the Ring of Fire’s economic potential is extremely important not just to the northwest but also to communities like Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie that have major steel and mining interests. Wynne’s letter just happened to go public during the Sault Ste. Marie byelection, as the Liberals defended themselves against accusations that their party had taken the north for granted.
Cynics might contend the latest example of Liberal urgency in the Ring of Fire evaporated with their electoral fortunes in Sault Ste. Marie, after the Tories won that seat. The government may yet prove those cynics wrong, but it will be years overdue.
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