Former Liberal MP Bob Rae said negotiations between Ontario and First Nations over mining in the Ring of Fire region are off to a good start and mark an opportunity to "do development differently."

Rae was named chief negotiator for the Matawa Tribal Council, representing nine First Nations communities in northern Ontario, in May while he was still the MP for Toronto Centre. In mid-June he announced he was quitting politics in order to focus on the Ring of Fire job.

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Former Liberal MP and interim leader Bob Rae is now the chief negotiator for the Matawa Tribal Council, which is negotiating with Ontario over the development of the Ring of Fire region. (Derek Mortensen/Canadian Press)

The Ring of Fire area, about 540 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, has one of North America's biggest deposits of chromite, used in stainless steel. It's also rich in nickel, copper and platinum. The federal government estimates the mineral content is worth $30 billion to $50 billion and will create up to 5,000 direct and indirect jobs.

The provincial government, the Matawa chiefs and Cliffs Natural Resources are negotiating development of the area and will need to reach agreements on revenue sharing, infrastructure development, environmental protection and social support.

"We need to deal with getting people ready for development," Rae said when asked about concerns with the development.

He referenced a federal government briefing note that was obtained by CBC News Network's Power & Politics in June that described poor socioeconomic conditions in the communities. It warned that poor housing, education and drinking water could jeopardize the ability of First Nations to benefit from economic opportunities.

Rae said environmental sustainability and infrastructure, such as roads to link isolated communities, are also key issues.

Rae vs. Iacobucci

On the other side of the negotiating table from Rae is former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, who is acting for Ontario. The two negotiators have already had a few meetings.

"It's early days yet, but so far I think it's been a very respectful dialogue and we're hoping to get to a better place," Rae told CBC's Rosemary Barton in an interview on Power & Politics.

"We've got a lot of things on the table," he said.

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The mineral-rich area known as the Ring of Fire is controversial among environmentalists, First Nations and many communities which would be affected by the large-scale building of infrastructure and possibly decades of mining. (CBC)

Rae said that in Ontario and other provinces where First Nations communities, private companies and governments are working out deals, the relationships are changing and there is more focus now on making sure First Nations aren't "left on the sidelines."

When pipelines were built 30 years ago, for example, there was no local consultation with First Nations, he said, but things have changed — and all Canadians need to be aware of that.

"There's a whole new economic partnership that people are looking to create," Rae said.

The former Ontario premier and interim federal Liberal leader said he feels strongly that "we have to do development differently now than we've done it before," noting that as Canada's frontier extends further north it will cross into traditional aboriginal territory.

"This is an issue that all Canadians are going to have to embrace. We haven't done development right as it relates and connects to First Nations people for a long time. We now have an opportunity to do it differently," said Rae.

'Interesting' year ahead

He visited Long Lake #58 First Nation earlier this week with Iacobucci, David Zimmer, the province's aboriginal affairs minister, and Michael Gravelle, minister of northern development and mines.

"We've had a productive beginning," said Rae. The terms of reference for the negotiations are currently being drawn up and he hopes it won't take too long.

He added that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is also keeping a close eye on the file.

"It's going to be an interesting year," Rae said.

Rae also recently accepted a position as chair of the board of a British Columbia-based partnership of 15 First Nations that is preparing to implement a natural gas pipeline deal. He's also teaching at the University of Toronto.