Thunder Bay

Provincial consultation deadline pushed back for two proposed roads in Ring of Fire

The Ontario government says it has heard concerns from Indigenous communities about the challenges of consulting on proposed developments for two access roads into the Ring of Fire area, and have extended deadlines for both projects after push back from some First Nations in the area.

Neskantaga had requested delays because of inability to meaningfully consult community members during pandemic

Several methods or transportation and several routes have been proposed for getting chromite and nickel from remote northern Ontario to existing road or rail links. A government-funded study on the issue has produced inconclusive results. (Northern Policy Institute )

The Ontario government says it has heard concerns from Indigenous communities about the challenges of consulting on proposed developments for two access roads into the Ring of Fire area, and have extended deadlines for both projects after pushback from some First Nations in the area.

Both the Webequie supply road and the Marten Falls community access road are working their way through the province's environmental assessment process. That process will answer the questions of if, when and how work can proceed on the proposed developments.

Webequie and Marten Falls have each submitted their terms of reference — or the roadmap laying out how the proposed projects should be studied during the environmental assessment — to the provincial government and are awaiting its approval before the studies can begin.

But a critical component in getting Ontario's sign-off is consultation with First Nations, the public and other stakeholders — a process which has been contested because of concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic limits the ability of First Nations to submit informed comments on how they may be affected by the proposed roads and how the issues should be studied.

The original deadlines to submit comments were in the summer and fall of 2020.

But those deadlines set up confrontations between Webequie and Marten Falls with neighbouring Neskantaga First Nation who said it wanted to be included in the process, but could not do so during the pandemic and after the community had been evacuated due to an exacerbated water crisis.

At the time, Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias wrote to Ontario's Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks saying, "the current circumstances do not offer a safe environment for our community to participate in a meaningful review of the project," and asking for an extension to the comment periods.

And in two ministry letters sent to Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias on Jan. 25, 2021, the provincial government acknowledged they had "heard concerns from Indigenous communities about the timeline" for both terms of reference, and have accordingly extended the comment periods.

The ministry wrote that they are "aware of the challenges faced by all in light of the pandemic and appreciate the efforts communities have made to adapt to the situation," and that they have taken "a flexible approach to consultation during the ToR [Terms of Reference] process and if need be … will reassess the situation."

Now, the deadline to comment on the terms of reference for the Webequie supply road — a planned 107-kilometre all-season road that will connect the First Nation's airport to mining developments in the Ring of Fire — is February 26.

And the deadline for comments on the Marten Falls community access road — an all-season, two-lane gravel road stretching roughly 200 kilometres from the existing provincial highway to the First Nation — will be March 31.

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