The relatively young Ring of Fire exploration camp in northern Ontario has the opportunity to become a global model of responsible development where First Nations groups, mining companies and the provincial government work together to transition from exploration to production in a way that benefits all.
But for every step forward, development in the region seems to take two steps back. Last month, First Nations communities in the vast mineral-rich area of the James Bay Lowlands threatened to evict mining companies from their treaty lands if the Ontario and federal governments don’t step up negotiations with them over how development will proceed. The catalyst for that backlash was the Ontario government’s agreement with Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources to build - without community consultation - a chromite mine, a 360 km road north-south road to the mine and a processing facility near Sudbury. Cliffs and the province are now facing a legal challenge by the Neskantaga First Nation over the duty to consult.
The bad faith the agreement has created does not just affect Cliffs, but also the couple of dozen junior companies trying to conduct exploration programs in the region. Toronto-based Noront Resources, for example, the largest landholder in the camp and owner of the high-grade Eagle’s Nest nickel sulphide deposit, has been consulting First Nations groups since shortly after the Eagle’s Nest discovery in 2007 under what is probably the most sophisticated CSR program in the Canadian junior mining sector. Its own road-building plans would have connected some of the communities instead of bypassing them with a shorter haulage route. But all that goodwill is at risk of being overlooked if the much larger and more powerful Cliffs is perceived to be ploughing ahead without community involvement.
There is still time for the mining companies and government to salvage relations with the First Nations groups in the area before exploration comes to a standstill. Clarity on what exactly “duty to consult” entails coupled with a process to respond to First Nations issues such as social and environmental concerns should be a top government priority. The opportunity to set a positive precedent for resource development on treaty lands in Canada is just too great to pass up.