Growing pressure from northern Ontario First Nations forces feds to extend Ring of Fire consultations
At least six First Nations in the region sent letters to federal Impact Assessment Agency demanding more time
With pressure growing on the relatively new Impact Assessment Agency of Canada to delay consultation on the regional impact assessment in the Ring of Fire mineral development region in northern Ontario, the federal government has relented and offered more time and support for First Nations to participate in the process.
That decision came after a letter was sent to the agency on Dec. 10 that was jointly signed by the chiefs of five First Nations in northern Ontario asking for the deadline of Jan. 21, 2021, to be pushed back because of capacity issues related to the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the letter, the chiefs wrote, "we do not want the [regional assessment] to start off on a track that is short and leads to dead ends; that does not make full use of the opportunity presented here and ends up being mere window dressing."
Prior to 2020, the federal Liberal government had not played a major public-facing role in the proposed mining developments in the Ring of Fire area, given that the Canadian Constitution grants jurisdiction of natural resource development to the provincial governments. That changed in February, when federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson announced that the government would initiate a regional assessment of the Ring of Fire area.
Regional assessment 'supposed to be' very comprehensive
The regional impact assessment is a new process to be conducted by the newly formed Impact Assessment Agency of Canada — both of which were created under Bill C-69 as part of the federal government's legislative work to "modernize" key environmental laws.
According to York University professor and Ring of Fire expert Dayna Scott, who was one of three people that actually wrote to Minister Wilkinson requesting he initiate the regional assessment in the area, this announcement was long-in-the-making and should have invited greater scrutiny of a range of possible impacts if the Ring of Fire was further developed.
"In the new legislation, it's supposed to be able to capture the cumulative effects of a number of different projects — sort of past, present and future — that might be going on within that region. It's supposed to be focused on a positive contribution to sustainability and consider climate impacts … to consider gender-based analysis," Scott said.
She added that because the process is so new, the federal impact assessment agency is still working out a lot of details like what the full scope of issues the assessment should consider, who needs to be involved and how large of a geographic area should be covered.
"The agency is just starting an engagement process right now that will produce the terms of reference for the assessment."
Regional assessment off on the wrong track
Stiil, Scott and First Nations leaders across northern Ontario are worried the agency is already starting the process on the wrong foot.
On Nov. 12, the federal agency issued a notice of public engagement, "inviting the public, Indigenous communities, and organizations to provide input to support the planning of the Regional Assessment in the Ring of Fire Area," with the deadline to submit comments set on Jan. 21, 2021.
Taken by surprise that the agency would move forward with consultations amidst the pandemic and during an ongoing water crisis that forced the evacuation of Neskantaga First Nation, Chief Chris Moonias tweeted that "meaningful consultation will not be achieved during the pandemic and evacuation" and urged the agency to pause the regional assessment.
Meaningful consultation will not be achieved during the pandemic and evacuation. Consultation cannot be ‘made up’ at later stages. We urge the Agency to pause the Regional EA until the conditions exist for Neskantaga, and other remote Treaty No. 9 Nations, to properly engage.—@can_ndn
In response to a letter on Nov. 13 from Neskantaga, the federal agency wrote back saying they were "sorry to hear about the challenges that Neskantaga is experiencing," and reminding the First Nation that the assessment is in "the initial phase of engagement" and that "in the coming months, there will be more opportunities to shape the process."
But that didn't fit Chief Moonias' definition of meaningful consultation.
"You have consultation before you start your project. You have to get permission from the nation before you start the project, that's how we understand good faith consultation anyways … there'll be no development in our nation's territory unless we say so," he said.
Scott, who has worked on research projects with Neskantaga in recent years, said, "if communities without the capacity to participate right now are going to just be sidelined or excluded and the planning is all going to continue ahead, then it seems that the government just wants to continue with that usual sort of same old approach that non-Indigenous interests can drive the future of the far north."
The York professor added, "but it's a problem. It shows the audacity of both levels of government here that they think it's okay to just push these First Nations to the side and continue on with their planning for a region that's exclusively occupied by Indigenous people."
Group of northern Ontario First Nations demands more time
After that original response denying the request to extend consultation deadlines, Chief Moonias and leaders from Attawapiskat, Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Weenusk First Nations got together and wrote back to the federal agency in a letter obtained by CBC and dated Dec. 10, requesting deadlines for the initial comment period to be pushed back.
In a response from the federal agency dated Dec. 14, the agency relented, writing "given the challenges you outline in your letter, we agree with your request to extend the deadline for the initial funding applications to January 29, 2021."
The agency did not commit to a date to end the initial comment period for the current planning phase.
And in a written statement to CBC, press secretary for the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Moira Kelly wrote, "we recognize the significance of Indigenous communities and others' participation in the Regional Assessment process, and are working closely with communities to adapt the engagement schedule to help address challenges arising from the pandemic."
She added, "at this stage, the Agency is seeking initial input into the planning and design of the Regional Assessment, which has not yet started. We anticipate that the Regional Assessment will formally begin later in 2021, at which time there will be significant opportunities for all participants to be involved."
Kelly did not respond to a question about why the agency is making the progress of the regional assessment into the Ring of Fire a priority as the pandemic continues.