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Monday's Ring of Fire road announcement 'premature' say area First Nations

No agreement exists to build all-purpose roads into the Ring of Fire in northwestern Ontario say two area First Nations named in Monday's announcement by Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Chiefs of Webequie, Nibinamik, say they agreed to continue to study road access

The Ring of Fire is a mineral-rich area in the James Bay lowlands, about 575 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont. (CBC)

Despite Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announcing on Monday that she had an agreement with three northwestern Ontario First Nations "to build a road into the Ring of Fire," two of those communities say that's not yet the case.

Additionally, two other First Nations in the area say any deal regarding an all-season road into the region is "premature," until some outstanding jurisdictional issues are settled.

On Monday, Wynne was in Thunder Bay to announce that the province had reached a deal with three Matawa First Nations — Webequie, Nibinamik and Marten Falls — that would see roads linking their communities to the provincial highway system. The province said construction would likely start in 2019.

According to that announcement, the corridor linking Webequie and Nibinamik to the highway at Pickle Lake would continue into the Ring of Fire; a separate road would link Marten Falls to highways at Nakina, with further planning for a north-south access road tied to the mineral-rich area.
The proposed all-weather roads (shown on this map in pink) would connect Webequie, Nibinamik and Marten Falls to provincial highways. (CBC)

But in a joint statement issued late Thursday afternoon, two other communities not included in that deal — Eabametoong and Neskantaga — said those projects will "hit a dead end," if there is no "real and concrete jurisdiction agreement with First Nations."

"The reality is that all the roads to the Ring of Fire traverse the territory of our Nations, and nothing is happening without the free, prior and informed consent of our First Nations," Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias was quoted as saying in a written release.

The area in the James Bay lowlands, about 575 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, which holds large amounts of chromite, nickle and copper, among other metals, has been called "a game-changer for Canada," but has yet to live up to that promise.

In 2014, the province and the nine member Matawa First Nations signed a regional framework agreement to work together on things like environmental monitoring, resource revenue sharing and infrastructure.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says she has a deal to build year-round roads into the Ring of Fire. Area First Nations say that's not the case yet. (Heather Kitching / CBC)

But in May, Wynne sent a letter to chiefs saying she wanted to see progress in "weeks, not months," that they "should not squander" her commitment to spend $1 billion and that she would work individually with any chief who will work with her.

The jurisdiction issue deals with who would effectively have governance over roads built into the Ring of Fire. Separate negotiations between the province and the Matawa First Nations were established in 2016 to attempt to settle that.

Those talks have not concluded, according to the leadership of Eabametoong and Neskantaga, and that "a concrete agreement" regarding jurisdiction needs to be a pre-condition for any road approvals. On Monday, Wynne said that area First Nations have "suggested a willingness to be proponents of the road," and that the province "will continue to work with them."

"I am disappointed to see an announcement by the Wynne government about building roads in our territories when there is no community approval of a proposed agreement recognizing the inherent rights and treaty rights of first Nations over territories," Eabametoong Chief Elizabeth Atlookan was quoted as saying.

'We're not moving forward with anything'

According to the leadership of Webequie and Nibinamik — two of the communities included in Wynne's announcement in Thunder Bay — no such deal exists.

The communities' chiefs stated they've only agreed to work together on "a specific study that could potentially bring a multi-purpose corridor to [the] communities and the northern Ontario region," according to a joint statement. That corridor could connect the two communities "to existing regional infrastructure and potential future developments."

On Friday, they announced that Mishkeegogamang has joined those efforts.

The chiefs added that they are not breaking away from the regional framework agreement or another effort between the four First Nations to study options for all-weather roads in Ontario's far north. In fact, Nibinamik Chief Johnny Yellowhead told reporters on Friday that the new study will build on it.

"We just want to be clear that we're not moving forward with anything [building a road]," Yellowhead said. "It's just a study that we want to do from Webequie and Nibinamik just to get that ... community service road between the two First Nations."
Cornelius Wabasse is the chief of Webequie First Nation. (Heather Kitching / CBC)

Subsequent talks with other area First Nations will follow, Yellowhead said, adding that maintaining unity and good communications among the nine Matawa communities is key.

"I think we need to stay united," he said. "There are times that, I know, the Ontario government gets a lot of pressure too, so I respect that, but I think we just need to come together and work together to try to understand the process."

Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse added that any talk of a road into the Ring of Fire is "premature in a way," but acknowledged that "we need to start moving forward on our processes."

He added that continued dialogue between the Matawa communities is key in order to do that.

The leadership of Eabametoong and Neskantaga slammed Monday's government announcement as being "divisive." When she was in Thunder Bay, Wynne told reporters "there is no benefit in ... driving wedges where there don't need to be wedges."