Ring of Fire First Nations sign Unity Declaration
The Ring of Fire region in Ontario has attracted interest from almost 100 mining companies in recent years, many of whom are interested in its significant deposits of chromite, a key mineral in the making of stainless steel.
The area is also home to numerous Aboriginal communities that are interested in exploring the potential of their land on one condition: that they can be involved in the process. Unfortunately, recent talks between Chiefs and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) broke down after First Nations’ efforts to obtain a Joint Review Panel Environmental Assessment proved to be unsuccessful.
The CEAA elected to conduct what is called a “comprehensive study,” which has a one-year timeline and relies heavily on reports, studies and written submissions rather than a review panel process, which is open-ended and involves more community discussion and debate.
A group of nine Northern Ontario First Nations are going to Federal Court in an effort to get the government to hear them out. They want a joint review panel to be reconsidered and they are aiming for a beefed up environmental assessment of a proposed chromite mine near Thunder Bay, complete with public consultations in affected communities.
The nine First Nations have signed the Mamow-Wecheekapawetahteewiin (or Unity Declaration), which states they will stand together to ensure their nation is protected and that their written consent will be required before any development activity may proceed.
Chief Sonny Gagnon of the Aroland First Nations – one of the communities that form the Matawa First Nations – sees this as a crucial moment in time for the future of his people. “This is the biggest opportunity we have had to make our communities prosperous and self-sufficient,” he says. “I can be greedy today and sign any contract with a mining company, but I’m thinking about future generations – my people – I want to protect them.” Gagnon’s Northern Ontario community of some 600 people has a 99 per cent unemployment rate. “I want my community to be self-sustaining,” he says, “and get off this ‘Indian Affairs’ mode we’ve been in for so many years.”
He recalls family members who were displaced from their land by two companies back in the 1930s. “We were very nomadic people at the time,” he says. “The bulldozers came and my relatives were forced to move. Then later, another mine popped up in our backyard and two families were forced to leave without compensation.”
Gagnon says that to date, the mining companies have not consulted the communities, but he hopes that this will change now that they are presenting a united front. “Our input could be positive,” he says. “We want development and we want to partner, but this can’t happen because we don’t have the proper resources. We need to do our own studies because these projects can potentially have a long-term impact on the land.”
Twice last year, Matawa First Nations requested funding from the Ontario government to help them conduct their own studies and prepare for discussions about mining developments. “The First Nations have a right to conduct studies so we can engage in environmental assessment and negotiations, but so far that has not happened,” says Raymond Ferris, Matawa First Nations Ring of Fire coordinator. “The government is basically saying: trust us, we’ll do all the studies and processes, and everything will be fine. But we don’t want that. We want consultation protocols, to prepare for negotiations and have the funding to conduct our due diligence. The province hasn’t provided anything so far other than small, insufficient amounts that are all conditional.”
Gagnon believes there is not an adequate level of trust in the government’s environmental studies. “We’re saying: come and talk to us, but give us the resources so we can talk to you and understand what you’re saying,” he says. “I don’t speak the mining language – it’s new to me. If we all talked Ojibway to them, do you know how fast they’d get the money to translate? We should have been consulted from day one. As the Chief of my community, I’m saying give us that chance. Listen to us. I would have been working hand in hand with industry and the government if that had happened.”
Ferris echoes Chief Gagnon’s message. “The companies that have submitted their project descriptions realize now that in order to get the permits they require, they have to go through the First Nations. The relationship building should have started from the beginning.”