Federal government orders regional impact assessment in Ring of Fire
Three parties, including the Osgoode Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic, made requests
The federal minister of environment and climate change has ordered a regional impact assessment in the Ring of Fire, the mineral-rich region around 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont, which is targeted for mining development.
Jonathan Wilkinson issued the order in response to requests from three parties: Aroland First Nation, the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada and the Osgoode Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic. It was issued under Canada's new Impact Assessment Act, which came into force on Aug. 28, 2019 as part of the government's overhaul of environmental assessment legislation – which it said was aimed at streamlining the approvals process for natural resource projects and improving consultation with Indigenous peoples.
"On one hand, I am quite surprised because this has seemed like such an intractable problem over so many years," said Dayna Scott, the York research chair in environmental law and justice and associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University.
"But on the other hand, you know, the federal government really had very little choice. Once those provisions were introduced for regional assessment, and they published the criteria that they would use in deciding whether or not to establish a regional assessment, it was very clear that the Ring of Fire was a prime candidate for this kind of study, and the region meets all of the criteria that the federal government established."
The request for the assessment came about, Scott said, when she and her colleagues realized that the environmental assessments on road proposals for the region were relatively narrow in scope.
"It was very obvious to us that, in order to actually take a decision as big as opening up all of the far north, we needed to have a much larger regional process in place," she said.
"To me, the most important thing is to understand the background conditions. It's really an ongoing social emergency in most of these communities with a lack of clean drinking water in some of them with ongoing youth suicide epidemics. There's extreme struggles, and we need to be able to look at the pros and cons of opening the region up in the context of those background conditions."
In letters to the three parties who requested the assessment, which were posted on the ministry's website on Feb. 11, Wilkinson detailed his reasons for pursuing it. He said that developments in the region could cause adverse effects within federal jurisdiction, including impacts on climate change, fish habitat and migratory bird populations.
He also pointed to possible impacts on Indigenous people's treaty rights, traditional land and resources, socioeconomic conditions, health and community well-being. He said a regional assessment could help inform future project-specific assessments that might be required in order to proceed with road construction, mining development and other activities in the region.
In addition, Wilkinson wrote that there is considerable public interest in the development of the Ring of Fire and the possible cumulative effects of work in the region. Ordering the assessment, he wrote, provides an opportunity for the federal government to work with the province, Indigenous organizations and non-governmental organizations in planning it.
A spokesperson for Matawa First Nations Management said that Matawa chiefs would not be responding to Wilkinson's decision until they had had an opportunity to discuss it together. Similarly, Aroland First Nation band councillor Sheldon Atlookan said he would not discuss the order with media until he had discussed it with his community.
The president and chief executive officer of Noront Resources, which holds the largest claim in the Ring of Fire, said he doesn't see the assessment impacting the company's development timelines.
Regional development is being lead by First Nations communities, Alan Coutts noted, adding, "The regional assessment won't slow down the provincial assessments that are taking place on the roads for the communities and for the industrial use."