Ring of Fire road forges ahead with historic signing

Megan Walchuk

The Ring of Fire Northern Road Link has been given the green light by stakeholders, in a historic announcement from Ontario and First Nations communities.

“We are living in very exciting times,” said Kenora Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford, Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines and Minister of Indigenous Affairs.

On Monday, Premier Doug Ford and Rickford were joined by Chief Bruce Achneepineskum of Marten Falls First Nation and Chief Cornelius Wabasse of Webequie First Nation at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention for a signing ceremony, to announce a partnership to move forward with a road to the mine site.

If built, The Northern Road Link would connect to the proposed Marten Falls Community Access Road at the south end to the proposed Webequie Supply Road at the north end.

“After 15 years of delay by the previous government, we said we would build a road to the Ring of Fire, and we are working with our incredible partners in the Marten Falls First Nation and Webequie First Nation to do just that and make sure we do it right,” said Premier Ford in a press release.

The Ring of Fire is a large rare mineral deposit, located approximately 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay and covering about 5,000 square kilometres. Current estimates speculate it contains a multi-generational supply of chromite, as well as nickel, copper and platinum. Chromite is used in the production of stainless steel and heating elements.

According to Rickford, the secret to province’s success has been building the corridor one agreement at a time, by providing what the individual communities need to engage in the project, whether it’s a daycare, or a training centre. “Everyone has different needs. We let them direct their priorities” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’re able to go to them and say to their young people ‘you’re hired,'”

“We don’t need millions of dollars to do this,” he added. “It’s a few meetings. It’s signing a memorandum of understanding. It costs very little.”

Although the historic signing between the government, Marten Falls and Webequie would allow for an environmental assessment and possibly construction to move ahead between the two communities, the opposition says it doesn’t go far enough. According to Michael Mantha, Official Opposition Critic for Northern Development and Mines, “the Liberals left office with only three agreements signed with First Nations, out of at least nine that are needed, to get moving on the Ring of Fire. After two years, Doug Ford and his government have managed to rip up those agreements, destroy the regional framework agreement, then get two of nine agreements signed. Three steps backward and two steps forward does not equal progress – at this rate, the Ring of Fire may never be built.”

“Hogwash,” rebutted Rickford. He charged that the Liberals has 15 years, and spent $20 million on getting the road built. “They didn’t get any agreements signed. I know. I was there,” he said. “The only ones who benefited were lawyers and consultants.”

The corridor does have other detractors. Shortly after the signing, Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias warned the proponents of the new road link to the Ring of Fire would meet “determined opposition from his community.”

Phase 2 of the north-south proposed road to the Ring of Fire bisects Neskantaga’s territory and crosses the Attawapiskat River, “the lifeblood of Neskantaga’s culture and way of life,” noted a press release from the Nation, which is an Ojibwe community of 400, located on the shores of Attawapiskat Lake.

Chief Moonias alleged that the proposed route has been made without his community’s consent, in violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Under section 32 of this declaration, “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

“I don’t dispute what he says publicly, but our private conversation was very constructive,” said Rickford, who acknowledged that the Nation wanted more warning of the announcement. “They indicated they are hoping to engage in the project in a different way.”

The province noted that the road network will not only open the Ring of Fire to development, with shovels in the ground in as little as a year, noted Rickford, but will “advance planning of critical road infrastructure that would provide reliable, all-season road access to potential mine sites and connect First Nation communities to Ontario’s provincial highway network,” said a press release from the Province. “The all-season road project would also improve access to health and social services and put in place improved infrastructure, such as high-speed Internet and reliable cellular service, for the First Nations and other communities nearby.”

The road announcement was preceded in October, 2019 with a $30 million investment in the Matawa broadband project to provide telecommunication services to five Matawa-member communities: Nibinamik, Eabametoong, Marten Falls, Webequie and Chief Moonias’ Neskantaga First Nations.

The deal is good news to the Chiefs who have signed on.

“We look forward to working together with Ontario to ensure the sustainable development of our ancestral territories,” said Chief Bruce Achneepineskum, Marten Falls First Nation. “Marten Falls First Nation takes seriously our right to make decisions for the betterment of our community. We are moving ahead with this agreement so all communities in the region can connect to the next phase, which is to secure and bring good-paying jobs in mining, construction and other skilled trades to our communities.”

“Webequie First Nation supports responsible development in our territory,” said Chief Cornelius Wabasse, Webequie First Nation. “We have been working together with Ontario for many years to reach this point. We believe that road development will help bring prosperity to communities across the region and better infrastructure – both on and off-reserve. We understand that road development will impact our traditional territories but believe this is a positive step forward to unlocking new opportunities that will benefit all surrounding First Nation communities.”

Despite progress being made in the North-South route, supporters of a previous east-west route to the Ring of Fire are calling for the province to consider all its options.

The East-West Ring of Fire Road Coalition consists of the municipality of Sioux Lookout, First Nations Communities of Lac Seul, Cat Lake, Slate Falls and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug and businesses such as Morgan Fuels and Perron Contracting.

The Coalition claim the east-west route takes advantage of less environmentally sensitive terrain, would take advantage of existing infrastructure, including rail, roads, the TransCanada highway and the Sioux Lookout airport.

They assembled in Queen’s park during mining week last week, to lobby the government to consider keeping their route on the table.

The East-West route was considered under the previous Wynne government, until resistance from a number of First Nations communities prompted the government to explore alternate routes.
But according to Rickford, the lobby group isn’t being entirely truthful. The resistance was for legitimate reasons, and the East West corridor was never abandoned – it’s still open for consideration.

With the new agreement signed, the Ring of Fire, which has been debated in the Legislature for decades, is now a 5-6 year project, and stands to revitalize Northern Ontario for generations, said Rickford.

“It’ll be growth like we’ve never seen before.”