Ontario's governing Liberals are pledging to create a development corporation for the Ring of Fire mineral zone in an effort to ensure infrastructure development for future mining projects moves ahead.
Northern Development and Mines minister Michael Gravelle made the announcement in Thunder Bay on Friday.
In a statement, Gravelle said the corporation will bring First Nations, mining companies and provincial and federal partners together "to settle divergent interests and get back to making this development happen."
Gravelle said competing private sector interests have impacted the project's ability to move forward.He hopes the new development corporation will help bring the parties together, and make mutual development decisions.
Cliffs Natural Resources has stated it may have to reconsider its project as a result of a recent failed effort to obtain the right to build an access road to its holdings on top of claims held by KWG Resources.
First Nations continue to express concerns about a lack of consultation on resource development in their traditional territory.
Feds asked to step up
Gravelle said the new development corporation will determine infrastructure needs and financing to support them.
"We really need the federal government to join us," Gravelle said. "They've done it in Alberta with the oil sands, in Newfoundland with a $6 billion hydro-electric project and elsewhere."
The minister said the federal government needs to place the "same amount of significance in northern Ontario as the Wynne government does."
The capital investment for industrial infrastructure is expected to be up to $1 billion, plus another $1.25 billion to construct all-season access roads to the remote region 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.
"Ontario is prepared to make a substantial contribution to the infrastructure needed to access the resources," Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said in a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. "We expect your government to come to the table with matching funds."
"Investing in Ring of Fire related infrastructure is a good investment because of the economic opportunity estimated to be on the order of $60 billion," wrote Wynne. "It is as transformative as opportunities arising from other energy and resources developments that your government supports."
Just another committee?
The province's development corporation will try to head off any more conflicts that are slowing development, Gravelle said in Thunder Bay.
"A development corporation is a model that can, at the very start, bring people together, allow opportunities for a number of partners to become involved and allow us to make some decisions."
However, the New Democrats worry the corporation was just the latest in the dozens of consultation and advisory panels the Liberals have set up this year.
"I truly hope that this not just another committee, another plan to develop a plan to implement a plan," said NDP northern development critic Michael Mantha.
"It's concerning to me that it took this government seven years to finally realize that they need to develop an actual plan to move the Ring of Fire forward."
The government also needs to set up a specific framework and guidelines to spell out exactly how First Nations will benefit from the Ring of Fire development and what share of revenues they will receive, added Mantha.
No First Nations leaders or industry representatives were at Friday's news conference in Thunder Bay.
"That's the white elephant in the room, until this government takes a leadership role instead of passing it off to industry," Mantha said.
The Progressive Conservatives said Ontario's Liberal government should stop looking to Ottawa to bail them out whenever they run into trouble.
"I think that the Ontario government needs to take a role when it comes to developing the Ring of Fire, not blaming the feds and going with their hand out all the time," said PC critic Monte McNaughton.
Industry responds positively
There was no immediate comment from either the Matawa First Nations Tribal Council or from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. However, two mining companies with big stakes in the Ring of Fire both welcomed Friday's announcement.
A statement out of the Cliffs Natural Resources office in Thunder Bay said "We have worked hard to build positive relationships with First Nations and mining companies in the region, and welcome the opportunity to work with those partners and governments at both the federal and provincial level to advance our project."
KWG Resources president Frank Smeenk told CBC News he's "enthusiastic" about Ontario's plan, adding that the company has been proposing a similar model. "This mechanism, at least initially, will give us one place to be able to go and talk to everybody that needs to be talked to," he said.