Thunder Bay

Northern Road Link to Ring of Fire getting ready for environmental assessment, but not everyone is on board

A third all-season road connecting the Ring of Fire to the provincial highway network is set to take its next step towards completing a necessary environmental assessment, but some in the region are not happy that the project is moving forward during the pandemic.

Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations signed agreement with Ontario on Oct. 28 to move project forward

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 )

A third all-season road connecting the Ring of Fire to the provincial highway network is set to take its next step towards completing a necessary environmental assessment, but some in the region are not happy that the project is moving forward during the pandemic.

Shortly before COVID-19 upended daily life as Canadians know it, the Ontario government announced an agreement with the Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations to advance the planning and development of the Northern Road Link.

The proposed road would connect two other all-season roads under development, the Marten Falls Community Access road and the Webequie Supply Road.

At the time of the announcement in March, several stakeholders, including the Fort Albany First Nation, expressed "alarm" as they questioned whether Ontario was meeting its duty to consult.

Now, the two First Nations, who are serving as joint proponents of the project, have submitted the terms of reference and are seeking approval from the province to initiate the environmental assessment.

In a letter obtained by CBC and dated Nov. 30, First Nation chiefs Bruce Achneepineskum and Cornelius Wabasse write, "[our] role as the proponent in this process is to lead and conduct the EA studies. Our goal is to foster a collaborative EA with our neighbouring First Nations."

Neskantaga expresses 'shock and disappointment' that project moves forward during pandemic

In response to the joint proponents, Neskantaga First Nation Chief Chris Moonias wrote back on Dec. 2.

The letter, which was also obtained by CBC, said, "we write to you today to express shock and disappointment that you have chosen this moment — as our community is experiencing a severe and unprecedented crisis — to send us a notice indicating that your communities have entered into an agreement with Ontario to proceed with environmental assessment."

Neskantaga First Nation Chief Chris Moonias says now, as his community is living through a water crisis and amidst a global pandemic, is not the time to be consulting and moving forward on projects that could have a lasting impact on his First Nations' traditional territory. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

The letter added, "out of basic human decency, we must ask that you pause the 'consultation', the 'engagement', and the notices. It is simply too much for us to bear at this moment. Documents are not received, deliberations are not being held, protocols cannot be followed, decisions simply cannot be made."

Members of the First Nation are currently staying at a Thunder Bay hotel after the nation was evacuated on Oct. 20, when an oily sheen was discovered in the reserve of the community's water treatment plant, prompting a complete shut-down of water services.

Moonias said, "we're in the middle of evacuation due to a water crisis, a public health emergency, and we are right in the middle of a pandemic. We're not able to fully inform the community members on what is going on…and we do not support what the proponent communities are doing because of the fact that we cannot participate."

He added, "for us, meaningful consultation is when you have community members be informed of all the details of the work plans and the community meeting, and having them to do the free, prior and informed decision-making."

Proponents still plan to move forward with project

Marten Falls First Nation Chief Bruce Achneepineskum said, "I understand that they're not in a situation where they can meet or even answer our emails when they're having a community crisis, and on top of that COVID adds another layer of crisis to what's happening."

Achneepineskum added, "we're doing all we can to ensure that we provide the accommodation when it's requested from us. But we've got a project on the go, a multi-million dollar project, and we want to see it completed and to move forward with our all-weather road."

Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum says he recognizes the hardships affecting Neskantaga First Nation, but says his nation has given him a clear mandate to progress with the Northern Road Link project. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Achneepineskum confirmed that Marten Falls and Webequie had finalized the terms of reference for the environmental assessment, and are expecting a response from the government by the spring of 2021. 

He says the joint proponents hope to begin the environmental assessment, which they expect will take up to three years to complete, in the fall of next year.

Several ongoing disputes over environmental assessments in Ring of Fire area

This isn't the first time the First Nations have disagreed about how and whether to proceed with environmental assessment processes on roads leading into the Ring of Fire.

Earlier in the fall, Webequie sought responses to the terms of reference they submitted to the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks regarding the Webequie Supply Road, but Neskantaga again requested a delay to the consultation period given its concerns about its capacity to conduct meaningful consultation during the pandemic. 

That was before water services were shut down in the community.

Meanwhile, Ontario faces a lawsuit from First Nations over changes to its environmental assessment regime that were introduced as part of an omnibus bill called the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act.

The court challenge argues that the new regime violates First Nations constitutionally protected Aboriginal and Treaty rights by removing many types of projects from automatically being subject to an environmental assessment.

With files from Jody Porter