Thunder Bay

Ontario government ends Ring of Fire regional agreement with Matawa First Nations

The provincial government has officially ended the regional framework agreement between Queen's Park and the First Nations communities closest to the Ring of Fire, pledging to move forward with a series of bilateral agreements instead.

Funding for regional talks between province, 9 Matawa First Nations ran out in late 2018

Ontario Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford has ended the regional framework agreement between the province and the Matawa First Nations that was designed to guide talks over the Ring of Fire. (Martine Laberge/CBC)

The provincial government has officially ended the regional framework agreement between Queen's Park and the First Nations closest to the Ring of Fire, pledging to move forward with a series of bilateral agreements that the province's Indigenous Affairs minister says will remove delays to completing projects that communities themselves want to see.

At the top of that list, Greg Rickford said in an interview with CBC News, is a north-south corridor that, not only could lead to road access to the mineral-rich James Bay lowlands, but can also connect by road, as well as add to the provincial power grid and expand modern telecommunications to, "at least four, five Indigenous communities."

"That has additional health and social and economic benefits that move beyond the more obvious opportunities of creating mines," he said.

"To the extent that Noront [Resources] or other mining companies could build mines on that corridor, then we have a great value proposition."

Rickford said that pursuing individual agreements with First Nations as they are ready to proceed with individual projects is a "pragmatic" approach, adding that the regional framework agreement had "come off line," and that over $20 million has been spent without "shovels in the ground."

"Today's about being inspired by Indigenous communities and their leaders to start moving the Ring of Fire, broadly speaking, to the sound of business."

But the opposition New Democrats' Indigenous Affairs critic said he's concerned that a series of one-on-one agreements can be used as a "divide and conquer approach," between individual First Nations.

"The regional framework agreement provided a process of dialogue [for] First Nations and, not only that, it ... gave communities a process to work together," Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa said.

"I think it's going to be interesting on how they move forward," he continued, referencing Premier Doug Ford saying during the election campaign that, if needed, he would hop on a bulldozer himself to build roads into the Ring of Fire.

"One of the unique things about the framework agreement is [government had to] talk to ... the nine First Nations as a group, not individually," Mamakwa added. "It's very unfortunate that it has come to that decision."

The future of the regional table's existence, that was designed to guide talks between the province and the Matawa First Nations over development into the mineral-rich James Bay lowlands, has been uncertain since the Progressive Conservatives formed government in 2018. 

Money tied to the agreement, signed between the previous Ontario Liberal government and Matawa, ran out at the end of October; as well, the appointment of Frank Iacobucci, who was the chief negotiator for the province, was not renewed by the PCs, with the retired Supreme Court judge stepping aside over the summer.

The Ring of Fire is a mineral-rich region in northern Ontario about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. (CBC)

However, the regional framework's viability was also in doubt under the former Liberal government, with then-Premier Kathleen Wynne saying in a letter to the Matawa chiefs in 2017 that they "should not squander" a 2014 financial commitment and that she would work individually with any chief who would work with her.

Additionally, some of the Matawa First Nations themselves expressed concerns with the state of those talks, with Neskantaga and Eabametoong slamming the previous government and calling for a "re-set", saying the framework was unfair and accusing the province at the time of engaging in a "closed-door" process with individual First Nations.

Despite that, Mamakwa said that the agreement enshrined that First Nations were to be partners in development.

"I don't think, some times, we're not — our people, our First Nations — are not recognized as that and I think that's very critical."

Sol Mamakwa is the Indigenous affairs critic for the provincial NDP. (Youtube)

Rickford said that many of the clauses in the individual agreements will be "inspired, to a certain extent, by some of the principles that had been done through the work under the regional framework," and that communities themselves are driving the agreements.

Ring of Fire mining company Noront Resources and Marten Falls First Nation jointly issued a statement welcoming Tuesday's announcement.  Marten Falls is the proponent of an environmental assessment for the first stage of an access road connecting the community to an all-season road. 

The end goal of the project is to connect to the Ring of Fire.

"For communities like Marten Falls, it is an unprecedented opportunity to transform our socio-economic future," the statement said, referring to developing the Ring of Fire, calling it "a generational opportunity."

Noront Resources is the largest mining company with claims in the Ring of Fire.

With files from Jody Porter