CBC News has obtained letters from several First Nations in the Ring of Fire detailing a breakdown in the relationship with Ontario that could threaten the already fragile mining project.

Chiefs are reacting to the Aug. 28 announcement that the new Ring of Fire Infrastructure Development Corporation was established with an interim board, made up of four senior Ontario civil servants, and no First Nations representatives.


Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle says industry pressure was one factor in moving ahead with the Ring of Fire Development Corporation without the input of First Nations. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"I am growing weary of your lack of attention to EFN's [Eabametoong First Nation's] concerns and our clearly stated request to work collaboratively," wrote Chief Elizabeth Atlookan in an Aug. 29 letter to Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle.

"I know you have heard EFN's concerns, but the MNDM continued to push this item forward, particularly in the press," Atlookan wrote.

"So, are we to be 'key' partners in this potential development, as your press release states, if EFN's legitimate requests are being ignored? Not likely."

Gravelle said the Aug. 28 announcement was necessary to meet an election promise, and to appease "other interests."

'Need to move from the political arena'

"I think people will be conscious of the fact that there are many who simply criticize us for not making more firm decisions related to the corporation, related to the project itself," Gravelle said. "There are certain pressures to move fowardI think I can say, that means industry."

On Sept. 2, the chief of Long Lake #58 First Nation also wrote a scolding letter to Gravelle.

"Once again it appears that we will be forced into another agenda that is not First Nations centred," Chief Allen Towegishig wrote.

"Mr. Minister it is time that we had a frank and direct discussion about the Development Corporation model and how it needs to move from the political arena."

But Gravelle insists the relationship with First Nations is the priority for the Wynne government.

Chiefs have their own plan for development corp

"We recognize that, in order for this project to move forward, this needs to be embraced, supported by First Nations, especially those most directly impacted by this extraordinary opportunity," he said.

Earlier this year, the Matawa Chiefs Council wrote to the premier, asking for Deloitte LLP to be removed as the contractor hired to establish the development corporation.

"In place of the Deloitte process our communities are prepared to generate options for a DevCo, and bring them forward for discussion," said an April 25 letter to Premier Wynne, signed by eight Matawa chiefs.

Permitting problems

Gravelle said he looks forward to seeing the chiefs proposal, and welcoming First Nations representatives to Phase 2 of the development corporation.

But the corporation isn't the only front where Gravelle is taking heat from First Nations in the Ring of Fire.


Neskantaga Chief Peter Moonias says pending exploration permits violate Ontario's Framework Agreement with First Nations. (CBC)

Neskantaga First Nation also wrote a letter, dated Sept. 5, expressing concerns about pending exploration permits for two mining companies working in the area.

"Neskantaga First Nation makes the assertion that Ontario is failing to deal with Neskantaga on a 
Government to Government basis and therefore reminds Ontario of its commitments under the Regional 
Framework Agreement."

The Framework Agreement was signed in March, with all sides saying it was the hallmark of a new relationship between the provincial government and the Matawa First Nations.

Gravelle said the permitting process had been put on hold for about a year while Neskantaga dealt with a suicide crisis.

"The process we put in place through the modernized Mining Act, assigns some time lines that ensure, form the perspective of industry, a predictable and a confident mineral exploration environment in Ontario," Gravelle said.

"But the important thing I need to say is that we absolutely respect Aboriginal and Treaty rights," he added. 

All of the letters are flying at a time when Cliffs Natural Resources, the main proponent in the Ring of Fire project faces internal pressures to sell off its Canadian interests.