Ontario leaders tout Ring of Fire's potential and promise action

Ontario's largely undeveloped northern Ring of Fire is seen as a potential boon to the province's economy. It has drawn a promise of $1 billion from two of the three main parties in this election, and a vow to find federal and corporate partners from the other.

All 3 major parties want to develop the remote region that holds chromite and nickel

Beneath a vast span of Boreal Forest in Ontario's north sits a collection of chromite deposits that could add $1B a year and 5,500 jobs to the province's economy, but a number of obstacles stand in the way of developing the area. Now the Ring of Fire has become a hot election issue. 2:28

Northern Ontario's largely undeveloped Ring of Fire is worth a $1-billion campaign promise from two of three major political parties.

Both NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne have promised to spend $1 billion on an all-season transportation corridor to the highly valuable region's natural resources.

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, meanwhile, has proposed bringing the federal government and private companies to the table to discuss development.

The Ring of Fire lies deep beneath the boreal forest, 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay and 1,700 kilometres north of Toronto.

"It's a bunch of mines," Charles Cirtwill, president of the Northern Policy Institute said simply. "Everything you need to make your phone work, to build your house, to make your kitchen sink, comes out of there."

Wynne has said the Ring of Fire "has the power to transform our economy."

"It's a national project at least as important as the oilsands in Alberta," Wynne said Monday during her northern leaders' debate with Horwath.

Some estimates suggest mining the Ring of Fire could add $1 billion a year to Ontario's GDP and create 5,500 jobs, from James Bay to Bay Street.

"The comparison to the oilsands, I don't think it's that far-fetched," said John Mason, manager of mining services for the City of Thunder Bay.

Costly road to remote region

The lack of a transportation route to the site has been a major barrier to developing the Ring of Fire, which is believed to contain one of the largest chromite deposits in the world. Chromite is a key ingredient in the making of stainless steel.
Ontario's largely undeveloped Ring of Fire is said to be potentially as important as the Alberta oilsands. (Noront Resources)

The project suffered a major setback last November, when Cliffs Natural Resources Inc., which had planned to spend $3 billion on the Ring of Fire, suddenly pulled out.

The company suspended its Ring of Fire operations indefinitely, saying it couldn't keep spending money on the project while construction of an all-weather road to the remote site remained in doubt.

The vast boggy region is almost unreachable.

"That's a pretty important sign that the economics of the Ring of Fire are questionable," Ramsey Hart, of Mining Watch Canada, said of the reluctance of mining companies to go it alone.

Lobbying from mining companies, such as KWG Resources, is well underway.

"The middle of an election campaign is a wonderful opportunity,"as Frank Smenk of KWG put it to reporters.

Noront Resources Ltd., which wants to develop its Eagle's Nest and Blackbird mining projects, has praised the Liberals for vowing to come up with $1 billion to build a transportation route.

Hudak, who served as a mines minister under the former Conservative government, said he'd also "combine the strengths" of the Ministry of Natural Resources with the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines to create one powerful northern minister.

Investment for jobs

The Tories have also promised to repeal the Far North Act, saying it would open up the north to more investment opportunities and jobs.

"You see in my plan what the northern leaders have asked for: repeal of a Far North Act to encourage economic development, a real plan for the Ring of Fire, affordable hydro so we can actually boom instead of shrink when it comes to our forestry and mining," Hudak said.

Horwath said her party is willing to spend in an effort to develop the north and create those 5,500 jobs.

"We have ample room in our budget to make sure that those infrastructure investments start flowing and that there is plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the Ring of Fire," she said.

First Nations consent is required before the Ring of Fire mining development can go ahead, according to a chief in northern Ontario.

The Ring of Fire is located about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.

Neskantaga Chief Peter Moonias said proper consultation will include informing all community members about the potential environmental harm from mining.

"If I'm given a bottle of anti-freeze, I have a right to say no, I don't want to die," Moonias told CBC Thunder Bay on Monday. "It's the same thing with all these impacts that are going to come out of the chemicals of the mining company."

Moonias said people in Neskantaga are interested in economic development, but not at any cost.

"Four thousand jobs are important, OK, we know that," he said. But "the lives of the people here that live in the area, about five or six thousand people, are also important to consider."

Corrections

  • This story has been updated from an earlier version that incorrectly attributed a quote by Frank Smenk of KWG to Mining Watch's Ramsey Hart.
    May 29, 2014 12:59 PM ET

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