PCs must find way to bring other First Nations on board, or Ring of Fire will stall: Chief

By Alan S. Hale December 15, 2022

Despite the PC government trumpeting the fact it has two nearby First Nations — Marten Falls and Webequie — on board with its plans for the Ring of Fire, the former’s Chief warns the project will continue to struggle to come to fruition if the province can’t draw more FN support.

Many of the other seven Matawa First Nations — which were recently recognized by the Chiefs of Ontario as having the final say over the project — are either skeptical or actively oppose Ring of Fire mining development, their stance casting a dark cloud over its future.

During a panel discussion hosted by the Empire Club about progress on the Ring of Fire,  Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum warned his fellow panellists, including Mining Minister George Pirie, that if the concerns of those communities are not addressed, the Ring of Fire will remain stalled.

“My question to the government is: why not start a process [to get them to come to the table]? Because, as I see it, if we don’t have the willing participation from other communities in the nearby area, things will be delayed and even halted,” said Achneepineskum.

During a panel discussion hosted by the Empire Club, Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum warned his fellow panellists, including Mining Minister George Pirie, that if First Nations’ concerns are not addressed, the Ring of Fire will remain stalled. (Facebook/George Pirie)

One of the most steadfastly opposed communities near the proposed mining site is Neskantaga First Nation, whose leader Wayne Moonias told his fellow Chiefs at an assembly last month that his community “won’t stand” for “our lands, our rights, our way of life and our identity [to be] jeopardized,” and that they would fight to stop the Ring of Fire if required.

“I will tell you this: Neskantaga First Nation will be there to stop Premier [Doug]Ford if he gets on that dozer,” said Moonias in a reference to Ford’s 2018 promise to “hop on a bulldozer” himself to build a road to the Ring of Fire, which would also provide road access to Webequie and Marten Falls’ remote communities for the first time.

Since then, the federal government has been trying to assure First Nations opposed to the project that their rights will not be trampled on by the Ontario government’s enthusiasm for getting it done on the Ring of Fire.

Assistant deputy minister of natural resources Jeff Labonté told Moonias two days after he made those comments that there is no guarantee Ottawa would provide the $1 billion the PCs want from the feds for the Ring of Fire, and therefore “it may be that projects go forward; it may be that they won’t.”

Then while launching his government’s new $3.8-billion critical minerals strategy on Friday, federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson acknowledged the concerns and questions of “several” Indigenous communities about the Ring of Fire. He said those worries “have to be addressed” in any agreement for mining in the region to proceed.

Speaking to Queen’s Park Today by phone, Moonias said he is not at all reassured by Ottawa’s overtures, saying his community made it clear they were unhappy with the new critical minerals strategy, but the feds went and rolled it out anyway. He dismissed Wilkinson’s comments as ”lip service.”

Moonias agreed with Achneepineskum’s assessment that the Ring of Fire will face problems if work isn’t done to address the concerns of other communities and obtain their “free, prior and informed consent.” Without saying what his community might do if that didn’t happen, Moonias suggested the project would face “potentially rough, rough waters ahead.”

“We have to ensure that we have a big say in what’s going to happen on these proposed plans and developments that are being earmarked in our traditional homelands,” said Moonias.

During the panel discussion yesterday, Pirie emphasized that the PC government is taking a dramatically different tack to Indigenous engagement on the Ring of Fire, by having Marten Falls and Webequie lead the environmental assessment process, as well as lead “the consultation process with the other communities in their traditional territory.”

“As it should be,” the minister declared. “We are doing it differently.”

Moonias dismissed the Indigenous-led process, arguing it was another example of Ontario attempting to hand off its obligation to consult with First Nations to someone else.

Generational divide in Indigenous support for project

Another panellist, CEO of Indigenous and Community Engagement Michael Fox, praised the PC’s decision to ditch the previous Liberal government’s attempts to create a regional framework agreement for the Ring of Fire — which he said “totally failed” despite the millions of dollars it cost — in favour of a “bilateral” relationship with “willing communities” who can direct the process.

“That became qualitatively different in terms of changing the relationships for everybody. That includes dealing with regulators, who have sort of learned about the Indigenous principles,” said Fox, before acknowledging that the process has not been entirely smooth.

“That doesn’t mean the other communities are not involved. You guys have likely heard in the news about the flare-ups,” he added. “[Some communities] may not want to engage with us directly. Sometimes they engage with us through the media or through lawyers. But we’re always open.”

Marten Falls Elder and senior community advisor Lawrence Baxter said there are a lot of factors driving the opposition of some First Nations against the Ring of Fire.

Older generations who grew up being outright ignored by government and industry have reason to be skeptical of development, and some will be content to maintain the status quo despite “third world conditions” in their communities. But younger generations, he surmised, are likely looking for things to change, which the road access and economic benefits from the Ring of Fire could provide.

Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse said if First Nations want to maintain their culture, identities and way of life, action needs to be taken to “accommodate our vision [for the future] and we need to be cognizant of the other First Nations and their concerns too.”

Pirie said building trust with First Nations is key to seeing the project move forward.

“The toughest thing that you can gain is trust. So, if in fact you’re going to be successful in any negotiations with First Nations, trust is absolutely essential,” he said, adding that “the hardest thing to get is the easiest thing to lose.”

But Moonias said the government’s actions have not inspired trust in him or his community.

“There is no trust in the current situation and process … Clearly they have a lot of work to do,” he said. “When you talk about trust while saying you’ll get on a bulldozer to destroy our traditional homelands, that doesn’t sit well.”

Trust between the province and First Nations, in general, may be ebbing after the passage of Bill 23More Homes Built Faster Act, without Indigenous consultation. This has led to the Chiefs of Ontario and several other communities, including the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation (whose territory covers most of the GTA and Golden Horseshoe), to call for the legislation’s repeal.

A pledge to “build a road to the Ring of Fire” was a key applause line in Premier Ford’s stump speeches on the campaign trail. The PCs have also presented the mining of the region’s minerals as a key pillar of Ontario’s future role in the auto industry.