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Ring of Fire east-west road still not a done deal

Road ownership and governance still to be decided

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announcing province’s decision to support First Nation-led road construction projects, providing access to three remote fly-in reserves and the Ring of Fire. Among those participating in the announcement were the chiefs of Webiquie and Marten Fall First Nations, representatives of Noront Resources and Minister of Northern Development and Mines Michael Gravelle.

On August 21, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s office announced it has taken “an important step forward toward developing the Ring of Fire, working with Webiquie, Marten Falls and Nibinamik First Nations to plan and construct a year-round access road to the proposed mining development being advanced by Noront Resources Ltd. As part of this project,” a press release from the premier’s office stated, “the province is also working with First Nations to build all-season access roads to their communities.”

An east-west road from the terminus of the provincial highway network north of Pickle Lake would provide access to Webiquie and Nibinamik, “as well as into the Ring of Fire development,” according to the press release. A second north-south road would connect Marten Falls First Nation to the provincial highway network at Aroland/Nakina.

“As a next phase,” the press release continued, “Ontario will continue to support Marten Falls to undertake further technical and environmental studies that could inform planning and development of, and a business case for, chromite mining in the Ring of Fire.

At a press conference a few days after the August 21 announcement in Thunder Bay, the chiefs of Webiquie and Nibinamik said they only agreed to a study of an all-season road to their own communities, while the chiefs of two other First Nations – Eabametoong and Neskantanga – complained about the province’s “side deal” with the three First Nations and described it as premature until there is a “real and concrete jurisdiction agreement with the First Nations.”

Noront Resources hailed the “agreement” as allowing the company to “advance its pre-development work and ready itself for the three-year construction of its Eagle’s Nest nickel, copper, platinum group metal mine.”

Eagle’s Nest would be accessed via the proposed east-west road, while the future larger-scale chromite project would use the north-south road, which will allow for a greater volume of material to be moved.

Following is an interview with Ontario Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle on the fallout from the August 21 announcement.

Norm Tollinsky: Did Webequie and Nibinamik First Nations in fact agree to an east-west road to the chromite and base metal deposits of the Ring of Fire?

Michael Gravelle: We are working very closely with Webiquie and Nibinamik to ensure that the discussions with their communities that are going forward now will provide us with significant access to the Ring of Fire. We are conscious of how complicated the process is for the First Nations. They are working very, very hard to move forward in a visionary way and we’re very pleased that they have, so we’re working with them on their plans to move forward with an all-season community access road which we hope will lead to an environmental assessment in 2018 and construction beginning in 2019. But we want to show proper respect for the First Nations and the process and part of that process is the consultations with their community members.

NT: So, did they agree to an extension of the community access road to the Ring of Fire and Noront Resources’ Eagle’s Nest base metal deposit?

MG: They’re having that conversation with their community members.

NT: Two other First Nations – Eabametoong and Neskantanga – said they would oppose any attempt at construction of the roads. Do you see that being a problem going forward?

MG: We’re working with all the Matawa First Nations through the Regional Framework Agreement and that certainly includes Eabametoong and Neskantanga. We’re working through the Regional Framework Agreement on a number of issues that we’ve come to terms with including enhanced environmental monitoring for the future projects in the Ring of Fire, regional infrastructure support, socio-economic supports as well as resource benefit sharing… We have also set up a joint jurisdictional table with all nine of the Matawa First Nations related to issues such as road ownership and governance, which are crucial to moving forward with the project, so while we understand that Eabametoong and Neskantanga have had strong words, it speaks to how complicated this process is in terms of us being able to work with communities that are prepared to move forward and we made it clear that while we want to work with all the Matawa First Nations, we will work with the three that are prepared to move forward at this time.

NT: The provincial and federal governments contributed $785,000 in 2015 for a feasibility study on an east-west road. What were the findings of the study?

MG: The study that was co-funded by the federal and provincial governments brought forth a number of options in terms of the road direction. We want to make sure that the road is done in a manner that works for the communities and for industry.

NT: Who will oversee the planning and construction of the roads? The province or the First Nations? Will they be part of the provincial highway system and who will own them?

MG: That’s part of the discussions at the joint jurisdictional table. The project that was announced August 21st by the premier with two chiefs in attendance is a First Nation-led proposal. We want to show respect for Aboriginal and treaty rights and show respect for First Nation protection of the land.

NT: Will the First Nations themselves be hiring engineering consultants and contractors for the environmental assessment, the planning and construction of the roads?

MG: Well, it is a First Nation-led proposal. They are the proponents of this road construction project?

NT: Is there a price tag for the project?

MG: We’ve made our $1 billion commitment for regional infrastructure in the Ring of Fire. That’s rock solid, but there have been no costs attached to the project that’s been proposed.

NT: Are you hopeful that the federal government will assist with funding of the roads?

MG: I’m certainly keen to see the federal government share in the cost of the roads to the Ring of Fire. We’re continuing to press them. They’re looking for a plan. We’ve come forward with a plan that is being led by the First Nations, so federal government involvement is crucial.

NT: Are you concerned that construction of the roads could be obstructed by Eabametoong and Neskantanga on the ground and in the courts? Are you still hoping to bring them onside and what will it take?

MG: I believe we can all work together. I’m very optimistic about it. To have three First Nations with the vision they’ve shown in terms of the planning for all-season community access roads is very positive and these are communities that are directly in the Ring of Fire. We are hopeful they can work with their partner First Nations to bring about a smooth process going forward. One cannot deny how complicated this project is. It certainly is one we’ve been working hard on for a number of years and we’re going to continue to work hard on it with them and with industry.

NT: Will the environmental assessment on the north-south road also commence in January?

MG: That’s the plan, but in 2018 for sure. Marten Fals First Nation is very enthusiastic about moving ahead with this project.

NT: What does road access to the Ring of Fire mean to Ontario?

MG: The announcement on August 21 was a significant step forward because we recognize that regional infrastructure is key. The Ring of Fire is one of great economic development opportunities of the century in terms of the resources that are in the ground. That’s why we made the $1 billion commitment for regional infrastructure. We recognize that in order for the Ring of Fire to open up, there needs to be access to it. That’s why we’re working so hard with the First Nations to make sure they’re ready for this development. It’s crucial that we do this the right way. That’s why we invested $114 million in community readiness. Three thousand one hundred First Nation people have received employment support training to get ready for employment in the Ring of Fire. This is a major resource development project in a remote part of the province that has never seen any development and there are many issues to the future economic and social development of the First Nations, so the work we’re doing with the Matawa chiefs and the three communities is crucial to seeing the project move forward.

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