THUNDER BAY, Ont. – Development of the chromite-rich Ring of Fire region in northern Ontario is one step closer after the premier announced Monday that agreements with First Nations are in place to start road construction in the area.
The provincial government has been talking with the chiefs of the Matawa First Nations for years, since it pledged $1 billion in 2014 to fund infrastructure into the area about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont.
The region holds one of the world’s richest deposits of chromite — used to make stainless steel — as well as nickel, copper and platinum, valued at anywhere from $30 billion to $60 billion.
Premier Kathleen Wynne’s announcement in Thunder Bay comes three months after she told nine First Nations in the region she wanted to see progress in weeks, not months, on discussions about the roads or she would move to bilateral talks with individual communities.
Wynne announced that Ontario will now work with three of those nine First Nations — Webequie, Marten Falls and Nibinamik — to build year-round road access into a proposed mining development site being pursued by Noront Resources Ltd (TSXV:NOT).
An east-west road connecting the Webequie and Nibinamik communities to the provincial highway network will be planned and built, providing all-season access to the communities and the Ring of Fire, as well as a road connecting Marten Falls First Nation to the existing provincial highway network.
“We’re moving forward with our plan to unlock one of the biggest mineral development opportunities in almost a century,” Wynne said. “We know that the Ring of Fire will be a game changer for communities in the region and quite frankly for the whole province.”
The Marten Falls and Webequie chiefs, on hand for the announcement, said they hoped the opportunities that come with Ring of Fire development will benefit their residents, who face challenges such as poor housing conditions.
“We have a lot of issues in our communities that we need to address and I think by moving forward with developments in our area that’s how we can address some of the issues that we face on a daily basis,” said Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse.
Marten Falls First Nation’s chief said situations such as overcrowded housing, youth unemployment and an ongoing boil-water advisory need to be remedied.
“Over 10 years on bottled water — that’s incredible,” Chief Bruce Achneepineskum said. “No other community in Canada would stand for that … We need to change those things. We need to create employment for our members. We need to create the right training opportunities, culturally appropriate opportunities for our members in our communities also.”
Wynne said she is still committed to working with the rest of the nine Matawa First Nations, with whom Ontario signed a regional framework agreement in 2014 to work together on regional long-term environmental monitoring, resource revenue sharing, economic supports, and infrastructure.
“Among a group of communities there were some that were at a different point of readiness to move forward and we said, ‘then let’s go,'” Wynne said. “Let’s get moving and make those investments.”
The Ontario government has so far unsuccessfully pressed the federal government to match its planned $1-billion investment.
“I made it clear that we were moving ahead whether the federal government stepped up or not,” Wynne said. “Obviously we continue to hope the federal government will see the importance of a project of this scope and that they will step up.”
Federal infrastructure money can’t flow to the region without a specific funding request from the provincial government, and a spokesman for federal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi said if Ontario submits one, they will analyze it.
“The federal government recognizes the socioeconomic benefits that development in the Ring of Fire could bring to Indigenous Peoples in the region, and to municipalities, Ontario and Canada,” Brook Simpson said in a statement.
Noront Resources, which signed a US$20-million deal to buy claims in the region that were owned indirectly by Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. after it pulled out in 2013, said it looks forward to working closely with the province and First Nations communities on road construction and mine development.
“Today’s announcement is a major step forward for Noront as we prepare to develop our nickel and chromite deposits in the Ring of Fire,” president and CEO Alan Coutts said in a statement.
Both the Ontario NDP and Progressive Conservatives decried a lack of progress thus far from the government.
The communities are to start environmental assessments by January with construction is set to begin in 2019.
— By Allison Jones in Toronto