Lorraine Explains: Ontario government volunteering $1.6B for remote ‘Ring of Fire’ mining roads
Foreign mining corps had accepted cost of building roads to remote zone, but Ford gov’t corner-cutting could add huge public debt
You could be forgiven for thinking the most pressing issue facing Ontario right now is roads. Also, electric cars. The premier who detested electric cars just a few short years ago is now embracing them — but at what cost?
Doug Ford’s Conservative government has been throwing ministerial zoning orders (MZOs) around like confetti, and in light of an impending election, it’s bulldozer politics as usual. While pushing ahead with questionable highways in the GTA, he has also turned his sights to the far north in an effort to open up the mining of precious metals — specifically nickel — needed to build batteries for electric cars — and the roads needed to access them.
Environmental assessments began early in October for proposed roads needed to reach the Ring of Fire, a proposed mining site that is a roughly 100-kilometre bowl. The extreme location — over 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay — means building road access and infrastructure in some of the country’s most challenging environments. More importantly, the area is home to many First Nations groups, who own the land and are stewards of its water sources, river systems, wetlands and wildlife. According to a Request for Value for Money audit filed with the Ontario Auditor General last month, some of these First Nations groups who will be impacted by any proposed mining and the required infrastructure are already under drinking water advisories.
The site was discovered over 14 years ago, and the Liberal government at the time trumpeted the importance of the find. While smaller mining concerns have dropped out of contention over the years, most of the site is under the control of Noront Resources, which is currently being courted for a buyout by two huge Australian mining companies. For a resource this complicated and of this size, it requires the muscle of major mining interests like the Australian corporations; smaller interests simply don’t have the money required for an operation that according to one study, “ could produce 15,000 tonnes of nickel, 8,500 tonnes of copper, plus 23,000 ounces of platinum and 89,000 ounces of palladium per year for more than a decade,” according to this Financial Post report.
We’ve grown accustomed to a series of checks and balances that are supposed to protect land development in Ontario, but the Ford government has shown a breathtaking lack of concern for those controls. Back in April , “the Government of Ontario used its majority to force passage of Bill 257 — including Schedule 3, which amends the Planning Act to give the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing nearly unchecked power to fast-track development on precious farmland and significant natural areas across the province.” Similar workarounds are allowing things like Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass to pave over environmentally sensitive farmlands, wetlands and protected areas.
Ford has said the development of the Ring of Fire would only proceed with the cooperation of the First Nations who call it home. The proposed mine runs directly through Treaty 9 territory. “We do nothing up there without making sure there’s a buy-in from the vast majority of the communities,” Ford said in this CBC report . However, Ford is poised to make huge changes to the current land use law for northern Ontario to hasten development. “One change would scrap a requirement that 225,000 square kilometres of northern Ontario have protected-area status…The changes that the government itself describes as “the most significant” have to do with the First Nations membership of a joint advisory body on land-use planning in the Far North. The amendments would allow the government to create the advisory body with the participation of just seven of the 31 First Nations in the region. ”
Dr. Dayna Scott, an associate professor at Osgoode Law School and with the Faculty of Environmental Studies, is the author of that recent audit request before the Ontario Auditor General. She says that of the nine First Nations, two are definitely onside with the project, and one is opposed. She says groups least affected by the development tend to lend support to those who are most impacted — nine First Nations who are part of the Matawa Tribal Council and several Mushkegowuk groups — who are downstream and at risk of increased tailings and pollution damage.
She also notes the 35 billion tonnes of carbon that are stored in the peatlands in the proposed development area, which if released, would play a huge stake in climate stability. “There are major hurdles to get over first, not just building infrastructure and the actual physical challenge but also because of the divided First Nations, and that opposition is only just getting ramped up which is surely going to involve litigation and that will lead to delays, and that’s not to say it won’t one day involve actual confrontation on the land,” says Scott. That’s a sobering statement.