‘You’re not listening to us’: Some First Nations warn they will resist Ontario’s Ring of Fire development

By Isaac Phan Nay | NewsUrban Indigenous Communities in Ottawa | National Post –  March 30th 2023

Leaders from five First Nations in northern Ontario gathered at the province’s legislature Wednesday vowing to resist proposed mining development near their lands.

“We will take a stand, whatever that looks like,” Wayne Moonias, chief of Neskantaga First Nation, said. “Enough is enough.”

Representing the Neskantaga, Grassy Narrows, Muskrat Dam, Wapekeka and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nations, the leaders and community members called for a meeting with Premier Doug Ford and warned they would continue to resist if Ontario allowed development near their lands without further consultation.

“We have not given our free, prior and informed consent to these developments,” Moonias said. “If the premier wants to get a bulldozer to cross our river system, he’s going to be met by our people.”

Since Ford was elected, the Ontario government has pushed for mining in the Ring of Fire region, a wetland landscape about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. The area includes one of the world’s largest peatlands, which stores about 26 gigatons of carbon and is responsible for significantly reducing the world’s planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

The region is also home to a 5,000-square-kilometre mineral deposit and a key part of Ontario’s critical mineral strategy, which aims to make the province a hub for mining and processing the minerals needed to build electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels. Ontario has proposed to build the Northern Link Highway into the region, which would connect the Ring of Fire and the Webequie and Marten Falls First Nations to the Ontario highway network.

In February, leaders from Marten Falls and Webequie prepared a report outlining how Ontario should carry out an environmental assessment for the highway. In a statement on the project website for part of the road that reaches Marten Falls First Nation, Chief Bruce Achneepineskum expressed support for the road.

“(Marten Falls First Nation) now embarks on a journey where we look forward to a brighter future because of access to the provincial highway system,” Achneepineskum’s statement said. “The access road will offer (Marten Falls First Nation) the opportunity to grow as a community but also be part of the social and economic fabric of the region and country.”

The federal Impact Assessment Agency opened consultations on the highway for a month, inviting the public to comment. The Mushkegowuk Council, which represents seven First Nations in northern Ontario, made a submission asking for a further environmental assessment.

“We currently have several concerns regarding all ecosystems that encompass the proposed area, including endangered species, waterways and pollution,” the council’s submission said. “Mushkegowuk will feel all the repercussions caused by this road development being directly downstream.”

Another submission by Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek First Nation, which sits 50 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, asks Ontario to bring them into further consultations about the impact of the highway.

“Our community’s contributions are beyond academia and are part of our history and cultural practices,” Kyla Morrisseau, consultation co-ordinator for the First Nation, said in the submission. “Serious consequences will come with these decisions on the project activities that cannot be taken back once commenced.”

submission from Health Canada raised that several health considerations were missing from the impact assessment.

“The proposed human health assessment is limited to impacts from project changes to the biophysical environment and does not consider the potential linkages to social determinants of health,” reads the comment from Health Canada. “It remains unknown whether/how (sic) Indigenous knowledge will inform the human health assessment.”

In an email to Canada’s National Observer, a spokesperson for Greg Rickford, Ontario’s minister of Indigenous affairs, said the province will meet its constitutional duty to consult while mining the Ring of Fire.

“When it comes to developing the North, we are building relationships with Indigenous partners that revolve around fairness and respect,” Rickford’s spokesperson said. “From the outset, we have focused on consensus building in relation to resource projects and legacy infrastructure in northern Ontario.”

For some First Nations, that’s not enough. At Queen’s Park, leaders from five First Nations said they have not been properly consulted on highway development.

“We have made it very clear time and time again. We don’t want development,” Rudy Turtle, chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation, said. “We’re not happy about that. It seems like they just ignore our voices. You’re not listening to us.”

Christopher Moonias, chief-elect of Neskantaga First Nation, said consultations need to be conducted in person, on the land. He called for Ontario to send representatives to each First Nation and hold consultations with communities in person before staking a claim to build on the land.

“There hasn’t been a single government official that’s stepped on our land,” Christopher said. “Consultation happens in the community, in our language.”

Wayne said these consultations needed to happen with the full participation of their communities. Until then, he said, his community will demonstrate against the highway and mining operations. Cecilia Begg, head councillor for Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, echoed his call.

“We will do everything to stop any exploration or anything coming our way,” Begg said, “because we’re not ready for that.”

After addressing the media, the delegation attended question period at the provincial legislature. Sol Mamakwa, MPP for Kiiwetinoong, voiced their concerns.

“The five First Nations that travelled thousands of kilometres to be here are the ones that will have to live with the mess that is left behind,” Mamakwa said. “Their children and their grandchildren will have to drink the water downstream from these mines.”

In response, Rickford said the Ontario government had met its duty to consult and that developing the Ring of Fire would offer people in northern Ontario “benefit from the economic opportunities.”

“What our government will do is put a priority on putting a shared and common interest in transforming northern Ontario,” Rickford said.

When the Speaker of the house moved to the next question, the delegation interrupted proceedings from the gallery.

“There will be no Ring of Fire,” Christopher said, before he and Wayne were ushered out of the gallery.

Isaac Phan Nay / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative