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Ontario’s Ring of Fire development plan has major flaws
Cheryl Chetkiewicz
Cheryl Chetkiewicz

Originally published in the Toronto Star

29 May 2017

The Ring of Fire mining development requires a clear road map focused on sustainability, not disjointed planning and side deals that divide communities.

Recently, Premier Kathleen Wynne threw down the gauntlet with Matawa First Nations, demanding it decide once and for all on the route of a long-discussed road to access the mineral-rich Ring of Fire region in the province’s northeast.

The problem with the premier’s challenge is that it is her government that has failed to come up with a strong direction for this supposed road to riches. The government has left it to various mining companies to propose potential routes while providing some funds to four communities that would be affected by the building of the mining road and subsequent opening up of their traditional territory to development.

The government is willing to put $1 billion on the table to pay for the road and invest more than $6.9 million in negotiations with Matawa First Nations for regional infrastructure among others.

Unfortunately, it has done little to actually assess the broader economic, social, and environmental impacts and opportunities of developing the region. This is a failure that speaks volumes about its weak approach to assessing the pros and cons of major developments in remote regions.

Development of the mineral-rich Ring of Fire has been touted as the next big opportunity to ignite the province’s mining sector since 2009. But as commodity prices tanked and the original project proponent, Cliffs Natural Resources, pulled out in 2013, the government has refused to take up any opportunity to engage in thoughtful regional and strategic planning.

As scientists who have been working in the Far North for more than a decade, we’ve seen no effort to consider how, at the regional level, we might better ensure that projects result in real, sustainable gains for First Nation communities — and all Ontarians. We’ve seen no effort to strategically assess what is at stake ecologically before introducing mines, roads and transmission lines into one of the world’s last intact wild areas.

We’ve seen no effort to engage First Nations and other Ontarians in building a vision for this globally unique region that serves as a: source of mineral wealth; a storehouse for carbon crucial to the fight against climate change; a refuge for threatened species such as caribou; and a living foundation for First Nation culture tied to treaty and Indigenous rights in Ontario’s Far North.

We are putting the cart before the horse in debating whether roads should be built to serve mines, or communities, or both.

“We are putting the cart before the horse in debating whether roads should be built to serve mines, or communities, or both.”

The government has had plenty of notice, and advice, about the inadequacy of its planning processes in the Ring of Fire. Reform of Ontario’s outdated Environmental Assessment Act has been recommended by both the Environmental Commissioner for Ontario and the province’s Auditor General. These experts have identified the need for a better process for determining the social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits of any given development project.

Most mining projects in Ontario are not even subject to individual environmental assessments. That means we can’t take a closer look at the impacts — let alone merits — of individual mines before the shovels hit the ground. That’s not even considering the additional impacts of transmission corridors or rail lines needed to service them.

The premier’s effort to place responsibility for a holdup of the Ring of Fire road on First Nations is unfair and misdirected. It is her government’s refusal to develop a comprehensive regional approach that considers the trade-offs of development and protection more carefully that is to blame.

In fact, rather than threatening more piecemeal planning — such as “unilateral” consultations with communities that “want” the road — Wynne should take the time to read the recently released advice of the federal expert panel on environmental assessment reform.

The panel has clearly stated that the project-by-project assessment process currently being used in Ontario cannot be relied upon to deliver on sustainable regional outcomes. We need improved project-level assessment as well as more robust processes that help us address cumulative effects, including the growing impacts of climate change.

Just as we can’t plan a neighbourhood one road — or house — at a time, we cannot plan for sustainable economies, healthy ecosystems, and First Nations interests one project at a time. Instead, we need a vision of where we want to go and an understanding of how individual projects will or will not help get us there.

Wynne must now demand provincial leadership on the Ring of Fire that provides clear “road map” for the development and conservation of the region rather than rely on current piecemeal planning efforts and ultimatums that have us headed for the ditch. The road map includes a path toward more far-sighted planning in Ontario’s Far North.

Dr. Cheryl Chetkiewicz is a conservation scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada and co-author of Getting It Right in Ontario’s Far North. Dr. Justina Ray is president and senior scientist at WCS Canada, a former member of Ontario’s Far North Science Advisory Panel.

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