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Neskantaga First Nation says it wasn’t adequately consulted in key Ring of Fire environmental study

March 7, 2023
Two mining exploration camps in the proposed Ring of Fire development area, northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont.

First Peoples Law Report: The Globe and Mail: Neskantaga First Nation says it wasn’t adequately consulted in a key Ring of Fire environmental study, and is warning Ring of Fire Metals, the Australian mining company bent on developing the region, that it will have to use force against members of the First Nation before they would allow development.

Ontario and two other First Nations, Webequie and Marten Falls, agreed on Monday on terms of reference related to an environmental assessment for the last of the three proposed roads into the Ring of Fire.

Several other First Nations, including Neskantaga, would also be affected by any development in the minerals region, located about 550 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. In a YouTube video on Monday, Neskantaga chief Wayne Moonias said that the First Nation had not provided its consent to the terms of the environmental assessment, and vowed to fight against the development. 

“This is unacceptable. This is something that is very concerning to us, and something that the CEO of Ring of Fire Metals needs to know. You’re not going to cross our river system without our free, prior and informed consent,” said Chief Moonias. “You’re going to have to kill us. You’re going to have to do more than just getting access from the province of Ontario.”

Kristan Straub, chief executive officer of Perth-based Ring of Fire Metals, wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail that Neskantaga is “an important community to us, and we continue to extend an invitation to Chief Moonias to discuss the views of his community.”

Australia’s Wyloo Metals Pty Ltd. renamed Noront Resources Ltd. as Ring of Fire Metals after it took over the company last year. Ring of Fire Metals is “committed to listening to the views and aspirations of all communities and to making balanced decisions about future development,” Mr. Straub added.

During the terms of reference study on the environmental assessment, Neskantaga had sounded alarms it wasn’t prepared to respond to demands placed on it as part of the process. In 2021, it filed a legal application challenging the environmental assessment.

The First Nation said it was unable to participate in consultations, or meet the process’s deadlines, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With a population of just 400, Neskantaga is located about 430 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, and is among the most impoverished regions in Canada. The First Nation has been under a boil-water advisory for more than 28 years.

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Ontario had already agreed in 2021 on terms of reference for environmental assessments of two other roads, the first connecting the provincial highway network to Marten Falls, and the other joining Webequie to the Ring of Fire. The last of the roads, called the Northern Link, would connect Marten Falls to Webequie, and give the operator of the Ring of Fire a direct route to transport mined nickel out of the region.

Dylan Moore, spokesperson for George Pirie, Ontario’s Minister of Mines, wrote in an e-mail to The Globe that the duty to consult will be carried out on all proposed Ring of Fire projects, and will be subject to Ontario’s world-class environmental standards.

Discovered in 2006, the Ring of Fire has long been championed by Doug Ford. Ontario’s Premier wants to start mining in the remote northern region of the province in order to be able to feed future electric vehicle and battery factories in south. Ontario is already a manufacturing base for many of the world’s biggest automakers, and last year landed its first EV battery plant, with Stellantis NV and LG Energy Solution announcing plans to build a factory in Windsor.

Aside from uncertain relations with some Ontario First Nations over whether development should proceed, also complicating plans to develop the Ring of Fire is the morass of additional red tape that must be navigated before mining can begin. On top of the as-yet-to-be-completed environmental assessment on the northern highway link, there are five other provincial and federal environmental studies under way on the two other proposed roads into the Ring of Fire.

Ring of Fire Metals has expressed frustration at the slow pace of obtaining permits in Canada, especially compared to its base in Western Australia. There, mining projects have been put into production in as little as four years after being discovered. The federal government last year acknowledged that it can take up to 25 years to develop a mine in Canada. Ottawa is working with the provinces to try to speed up the pace.

Last week, Ontario announced plans to ease red tape regarding mine closure plans and allow easier access to obtain permits to mine minerals from tailings.

NIALL MCGEE, Mining Reporter

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