Minerals & Money

The far north in Ontario is brimming with natural and cultural riches, and plays an invaluable role in protecting global biodiversity and slowing climate change. 

Yet, politicians and industry leaders have been calling for regions in northern Ontario to be opened up for mineral development for almost two decades. With recent interest in critical minerals, the pressure is building.

But there are cultural and environmental costs, and economic benefits are uncertain. The history of extractive economies in northern Ontario have shown that local Indigenous Peoples have often not seen the benefits of developments.

We need better assessments of the costs and benefits, and equitable governance with Indigenous Peoples, before opening up this globally important region to mining activity. 

 

How the economy in northern Ontario has developed and changed over time

Since time immemorial, Indigenous Peoples have lived on the lands we now call northern Ontario, including the Anishinaabeg, Ililiwak, Ininiwak and Inninuwug Nations. The Nations had their own defined territories, sophisticated trade networks, and their own governance systems. 

Historically, the economies that have followed colonization, whether it is the fur trade, forestry, fisheries, or mining, have largely produced benefits for people and companies outside the region.

Meanwhile, First Nations in northern Ontario are largely excluded from decision-making processes, and experience little and transient economic benefits.

 

A series of Supreme Court of Canada rulings between the 1980s and the early 2000s established and affirmed the government’s duty to consult and accommodate Indigenous Peoples when resource or infrastructure projects affect their rights or homelands. But Indigenous Peoples have long argued that federal and provincial legislation do not truly give decision-making authority to Indigenous governments as it relates to natural resource management.

In recent years, First Nations have started to secure some revenues and other economic benefits from resource projects through contracts — frequently called impact benefit agreements — with companies.

Mining

Miners established some of the first non-Indigenous settlements in northern Ontario following the collapse of the fur trade, and the industry has dominated Ontario’s economy since the late 1800s.

In 1868, the Ontario Mining Act was passed to regulate the industry. The legislation is based on the premise of “free-entry,” a centuries-old British legal principle that gives prospectors the right to search any lands open for mineral activity, the right to locate and register a claim to acquire any minerals, and the right to apply for a mineral lease. There is very little land in northern Ontario that is excluded from mineral activity.

In 2018, Ontario launched a new online claim staking service that allows anyone with a prospector’s license to register a mining claim, and there is no requirement to consult or notify a First Nation if a claim is made in their homelands.

While the free-entry system has been in existence in Canada for more than a century, it is increasingly criticized. The British Columbia Supreme Court recently ruled that the provincial free-entry mining system was unconstitutional, and that Indigenous communities should be consulted before a mining claim is registered. First Nations in northern Ontario have similarly argued the free-entry system in Ontario should end.

Garth Lenz/The Narwhal

After a mining claim is staked, a prospector must submit an exploration plan to the Ontario government, and this is when Indigenous Peoples and the public are notified of potential mining activities and can submit comments to oppose unwanted mining activity. Use our Ontario Mineral Tracker to stay informed about upcoming mineral exploration permits and submit comments to the government. 

Ontario Mineral Tracker

WCS Canada created the Ontario Mineral Tracker to make it easier for people to know about mineral exploration that is happening – and to make it easier for people to make their voices heard if mining activity is not wanted.

First Nations and Mining

 

Recently, First Nations in northern Ontario and across Canada have started to receive some benefits through negotiated agreements with mining companies, frequently called impact benefit agreements, but confidentiality agreements often prevent public disclosure of the actual benefits received by First Nations and community members.

In one exception, it was reported that Attawapiskat received, on average, just 0.5 per cent of the annual revenues generated from the De Beers Victor diamond mine.

Members of the First Nation were frustrated by the limited benefits coming from the mining project in their homelands, and blockaded the road to the mine for several days in 2013.

Despite their participation in the mining project, the community continues to struggle with a chronic housing shortage, water issues, high rates of homelessness, mental health and addictions. Similar issues are seen across many remote First Nations in northern Ontario.

Despite some gains from these agreements, Indigenous rights and interests continue to be ignored, and Indigenous peoples are disproportionately impacted by industry activities — including adverse health effects from industrial pollution, higher rates of violence toward Indigenous women, and overall decreased community well-being.

“The public should be made aware if their government is spending public money on precarious mining investments [in the Ring of Fire] with dubious returns while other sectors, namely health and long-term care, remain chronically underfunded.”

 

— Dayna Scott, York University research chair in environmental law and justice. In partnership with Neskantaga First Nation, Scott wrote to Ontario’s Auditor General in 2021, requesting that the office review provincial investments in the Ring of Fire.

Ontario-GregRickford-PremierDougFord-BruceAchneepinkesumMartenFallsFirstNation-CorneliusWabasseWebequieFirstNation-signing-2200x1373

Nickel Rim South Mine near Sudbury, Ontario

What about critical minerals?

Governments and mining companies say it is necessary to jumpstart the mining industry and open up the far north in Ontario in order to get the “critical minerals” that are needed, among other uses, to build electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

Billions of dollars have been invested to bring EV battery plants to southern Ontario, and the Ontario government has spent an undetermined amount of money to open up the Ring of Fire first for chromium, and now for the EV battery supply chain.

However, neither government nor industry has publicly explained how the minerals found in the Ring of Fire will fit into supply chains for the battery plants.

There is still not a publicly available economic assessment of the benefits and costs to mining in the region, and analysts and geologists have been publicly skeptical of industry and government claims about the value of minerals contained within the region, and construction on a proposed road into the Ring of Fire is still years away.

There three main types of lithium-ion batteries currently used in EVs batteries are:

1

Nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM)

The most common type of EV battery currently being used, with a market share of 60% in 2022.

2

Lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP)

A lower-cost alternative that is becoming more popular in China and the United States and held a global market share of about 30% in 2022.

3

Nickel-cobalt-aluminum (NCA)

A rarely used battery cell that is mostly found in older Tesla models, held a market share of about 8% in 2022.

The only mineral currently found in the Ring of Fire that is part of the EV battery supply chain is nickel, and several geology experts have previously said the Ring of Fire is not central to Canada’s EV battery supply chain.

Indeed, there are several other significant sources of nickel in Canada that are more easily accessible, and are not located in such an important area for global biodiversity and carbon storage. Some of those projects include: the emerging Crawford Nickel-Sulphide Project in the world’s second largest nickel reserve, near Timmins, Ont.; the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine in Labrador; and multiple projects in the Sudbury, Ont., area.

Meanwhile, the global EV battery landscape is constantly changing.

Some emerging EV battery options include:

  1. Sodium-ion batteries — an emerging alternative to the lithium-ion battery, because it relies on lower cost materials, there is a high natural abundance of sodium, and the battery doesn’t need critical minerals like lithium, nickel and cobalt.
  2. Solid-state batteries — these batteries rely on thin layers of solid electrolytes that carry lithium ions between electrodes, as opposed to the liquid electrolytes used in lithium-ion batteries.
  3. Nickel-iron-aluminum (NFA) — this is a newer kind of lithium-ion battery that has a high-nickel cathode, and does not use cobalt, which is particularly rare.
Breathing Lands

Nickel mine near Sudbury, ON

As the national mining rush continues, we need to remember that the long-standing policy to prioritize the mineral economy in northern Ontario has come at a significant cost. There have been a series of high profile disputes between First Nations, the Ontario government and mining companies over jurisdiction, decision-making authority and legal orders. It has led to several lawsuits, protests, and project delays or cancellations.

Mining projects also have ecological, social, and economic effects throughout the cycle of exploration, mine life, and long after closure. 

If mining projects do move forward in northern Ontario, they must be led by and have significant economic benefits for First Nations. There also must be realistic assessments of the social and environmental risks, to ensure they do not outweigh the benefits.

Forestry

Forestry in Ontario takes place in an area called the “Area of Undertaking”, which stretches from near Ottawa to Red Lake. Forestry management plans are required for each forest management unit. These management plans, and the designation of land that is included in the Area of Undertaking has a long history of pressure from First Nations on the Ontario government to manage the land more sustainably.

In 1976, a memorandum of understanding was reached between Ontario and Reed Paper Ltd., permitting the British multinational company to log nearly 50,000 square kilometres of boreal forest in northwestern Ontario, at the time being the “largest tract of forest land ever given to a single company.”

It led to public outcry, and the Grand Chief of Grand Council Treaty No. 9 called for an inquiry to address resource development impacts and the lack of environmental assessment for resource extraction in northern Ontario.

Breathing Lands

An aerial view of boreal forest in northern Ontario. 

Photo credit: Cheryl Chetkiewicz / WCS Canada

The result was the creation of the Royal Commission on the Northern Environment in 1977, and the 1982 West Patricia Land Use Plan, which removed a significant portion of the far north region in Ontario from forestry activities.

“Northern environment, the people who live there and their communities, are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of large scale resource development [and] do not have the capacity to influence the course of development.”

 

— Royal Commission on the Northern Environment, 1977

In 2001, Ontario introduced the Northern Boreal Initiative policy framework with the goal of opening up parts of northern Ontario to new commercial forestry opportunities and facilitate employment opportunities and resource stewardship for First Nations.

Under the Northern Boreal Initiative, Ontario adopted their first land-use strategy in 2006 for the Whitefeather Forest and Adjacent Areas in the region. Nearly a decade later, Pikangikum First Nation was issued a sustainable forest license for the Whitefeather Forest. Eabametoong and Mishkeegogamang have also identified their interest in forestry in the Ta She Kay Win Planning Area.

In 2023, Ontario proposed changes to enable remote First Nations in the far north region to develop small-scale community-based forestry management plans for local forests that may also be identified as part of community-based land-use plans. These forestry management plans are intended to support initiatives such as biomass-based community bio heating. 

Hydroelectricity

Ontario has a long history of hydroelectric development, starting in 1906.

Recent years have seen a slew of legal settlements reached between the Ontario and federal governments and First Nations, compensating First Nations for the harms caused by the historical flooding of their lands.

Breathing Lands

The Kipling Generating Station on the Lower Mattagami River.

Photo credit: Connie O’Connor / WCS Canada

Today, Ontario largely relies on hydro power and nuclear power.

Hydro power and nuclear power release fewer greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change than coal-powered and natural gas plants. However, hydroelectric developments are not as “clean” or sustainable as some may think.

Dams can affect upstream and downstream environments by flooding areas, including the homes of First Nations. They change water flows, increase the risk of methylmercury exposure, particularly in Indigenous communities, and fragment habitats for aquatic species, like the lake sturgeon.

The hydroelectric developments in northern Ontario largely served to provide more power for people living in southern Ontario, and to facilitate resource extraction.

 

Hydroelectric developments in the far north in Ontario

  • 1911 — The Sandy Falls project was completed on the Mattagami River near Timmins.
  • 1914 — On the Abitibi River, the Iroquois Falls plant was constructed.
  • 1916 — The Smooth Rock Falls project opened on the Mattagami River.
  • 1928 — The Smoky Falls project opened on the Lower Mattagami, north of Kapuskasing, which flooded Moose Cree homes and land.
  • 1936 — The Abitibi Canyon project opened on the Abitibi River, resulting in the flooding of Taykwa Tagamou homes and land.
  • Future — Ontario Power Generation has proposed a number of projects, including the Little Jackfish Project near Lake Nipigon, projects on the Mattagami, Moose and Abitibi Rivers in the Moose River Basin, and projects on the Severn, Windigo and Lower Albany Rivers in remote parts of northern Ontario.

Major water diversions in northern Ontario

To support electricity and industry demands, engineers diverted the water systems in northern Ontario, so certain river systems would flow south into the Great Lakes, instead of going north into Hudson Bay as they naturally did. Here are some major diversions:

  • In 1937-1938, a diversion was created at Long Lake, so that water started flowing south to Lake Superior rather than north to the Kenogami River, and eventually the Albany River, and Hudson Bay. It flooded 142 acres of the Long Lake #58 reserve, leaving about a square mile for 1,200 people.
  • In 1943, a large part of the Ogoki River (which flows into the Albany River) was diverted south, into Lake Nipigon, and then eventually into the Great Lakes. The intention was to increase water flow for the generating station at Niagara Falls. This diversion increased the Lake Nipigon watershed by almost 60%, caused significant erosion and sediment transfer, harmed brook trout populations, and displaced several First Nations in the area. Ontario Power Generation apologized to Gull Bay in 2014.
  • In 1958, a third diversion was created at Lake St Joseph, to route water into Lac Seul, and eventually into the Nelson River which flows to Hudson Bay through Manitoba.

Due to previous flooding and harms caused to First Nations homelands as a result of dams and flooding, there is a restriction on large-scale hydroelectric development proposals in the Severn, Winisk, Attawapiskat, and Albany Rivers (producing more than 25 megawatts) and they require a proposal or partnership with the Indigenous community or communities before they can proceed.

In 2010, Ontario’s Far North Science Advisory Panel further recommended maintaining a moratorium on large-scale hydroelectric development in the absence of cumulative effects assessment in the region.

However, as Ontario prepares for increased demands for power, the government is looking once again to expand hydroelectricity generation.

A recent report by Ontario Power Generation calls for review of the restriction on large-scale hydroelectric development proposals. It also highlights some hydro power opportunities that could be accessed if the proposed all-season roads to the Ring of Fire are constructed — an example of the way new roads can act as a catalyst for intensified infrastructure and industry activity.

Fishing & Tourism

During the early years of European contact and settlement in Ontario, fish was an important resource for trade, exploitation and food. Reports from European settlers at the time regularly referenced the abundance of fish and wildlife.

Breathing Lands

On a foggy morning, Neskantaga First Nation community members take their cedar canoes to check the fishing nets for sturgeon.

Photo credit: Logan Turner/CBC

But over harvesting and the impact of settler activities — such as land clearing and construction of dams and sawmills — became clear very quickly in the early 1800s.

By the 1890s, commercial harvest of lake sturgeon from the Great Lakes had peaked, while Atlantic salmon had been extirpated in Lake Ontario.

In northern Ontario, commercial fishing for lake sturgeon, lake whitefish and walleye continued through the mid-1900s. But in the 1970s, there were concerns over the sustainability of lake sturgeon fisheries, as well as concerns over mercury levels in some other fish — due in part to industrial pollution — leading the commercial fisheries to close down.

Today, First Nations across Canada are leading efforts to rebuild the industry by focusing on responsibly and sustainably caught fish, and developing new aquaculture projects.

In northern Ontario, there are still some fly-in outposts on some of the lakes and waterways in the far north region for recreational and sport fishing for walleye and northern pike.

Regional Planning

The proposed resource development projects in northern Ontario hinge on the development of roads, and protection of ecosystems and biodiversity areas. Read more about the planned road projects and legislation governing infrastructure.