The nine First Nations that make up the Matawa group in northern Ontario are moving ahead with their own environmental research about the impacts of mining.

The massive Ring of Fire mineral deposit is in their traditional territory — and people want to know what changes mining will bring, said David Paul Achneepineskum, Mattawa’s chief executive officer.

"We want to get our people ready," Achneepineskum said at the grand opening of the Four Rivers Matawa Environmental Services Group office in Thunder Bay.

"But also, [learning how to] minimize those impacts, through capacity-building, through community involvement, and also being vigilant about any impacts that are happening right now."

Educating the Canadian public

Cliffs Natural Resources plans to truck up to 12,000 tons of ore each day out of its mine in the muskeg.

"There is concern about what the public calls muskeg and, maybe to them, there’s nothing in there," Achneepineskum said.

"But for us, our people, the muskeg is a place where they gather in the wintertime for food. In the springtime they go and harvest water fowl. It’s a place where they can get their medicines. To them it's a place where the caribou live for hundreds of thousands of years. So it’s a place they want to protect."

The community can educate the Canadian public about those kinds of lands, he added.

With little funding for environmental priorities, Matawa is finding creative ways to investigate and document concerns.

Their community based mapping program has won national recognition, according to Four Rivers manager Sarah Cockerton. Partnerships with northern universities are producing results as well.

As part of the grand opening, graduate students from Laurentian University presented the results of their studies, through teleconference.

First Nations asked them to look into "fisheries impacts from mining or chromite mining, questions that community members asked," Cockerton said. "It’s a very exciting partnership."

'Make it work together'

Achneepineskum said he hopes the combination of  traditional knowledge, as well as modern technology and research methods will earn respect with government agencies assessing the project.

The Matawa First Nations recently won an important court decision that could lead to a more robust federal environmental assessment of mining in the area.

"When you consider the people that have lived on the land, they can almost say the water speaks to them, the animals speak to them, all the living life speaks to them," Achneepineskum said.

"We want to use that traditional and contemporary knowledge and make it work together. That’s something that we’ve emphasized with Canada and Ontario, that we can help them with their own environmental processes."