First Nations leaders demand equal partnership in Ottawa's 'broken' regional assessment for Ring of Fire
Environment minister asked to re-do terms of reference, with Friday deadline to respond
Canada's environment and climate change minister is under renewed pressure from a group of First Nation leaders in Treaty 9 to "start afresh" with the draft terms of reference for a regional impact assessment into the mineral-rich Ring of Fire.
Development interest is heating up in the remote area located more than 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, with an Australian mining giant recently purchasing the majority of mining claims in the area and the Ontario government pushing ahead with plans to develop all-season road infrastructure in hopes of positioning the province as a future electric vehicle manufacturing hub.
Yet there is firm opposition from some First Nations leaders, who say their sovereignty and concerns about mineral development-related harms to the land and their way of life are being ignored.
The Ring of Fire holds a range of minerals, including those used in electric vehicle batteries and energy storage systems, but is also situated under a vast expanse of peatlands, which act as a significant carbon store for the planet.
When the federal government first announced they would initiate a regional assessment of the Ring of Fire in Feb. 2020 under the new Impact Assessment Agency, there was hope it would lead to comprehensive discussions about the social, ecological and health implications of mining in Ontario's Far North.
But according to a letter dated Jan. 19 sent to Minister Steven Guilbeault by the chiefs of five First Nations in northern Ontario, the draft terms of reference for the regional assessment are "fundamentally flawed in their scope, purpose, and legitimacy," and the chiefs say it "promotes recklessness and danger."
The letter demanded Minister Guilbeault retract the terms of reference and start again "with a commitment to have the Regional Impact Assessment mutually and equally co-developed and co-led and co-enforced by an Indigenous Governing Body … that we Indigenous Nations will develop."
They gave a deadline of Friday for the minister to respond.
Guilbeault declined a request for an interview, and his office did not respond to questions sent by CBC News.
Government extends comment period
The government originally released the draft terms of reference in December 2021, providing 60 days for public engagement and comments.
Following a Jan. 17 meeting with chiefs of the five First Nations — Neskantaga, Eabametoong, Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Attawapiskat — the impact assessment agency said in a statement to CBC News they extended the deadline for comments to Mar. 2, "in recognition of the extenuating circumstances arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on Indigenous communities."
That move has been deemed insufficient by the First Nation leaders, three of whom previously declared a moratorium on all mineral development in the area.
"We also told you that offering more time to comment on the current [terms of reference] is not the solution, as they are so broken they cannot be fixed," said the letter.
"More time will not help this."
The chiefs called for equal partnership with Ottawa and Ontario.
Currently, the draft terms of reference indicate that the committee to conduct the regional assessment will consist of five members appointed by the federal minister of environment and climate change, and Ontario's minister of northern development, mines, natural resources and forestry.
There is no indication that Indigenous communities or governance bodies will have any decision-making power within the regional assessment, despite Ottawa's legislation explicitly allowing for agreements and power-sharing with Indigenous governing bodies.
"There is far too much at stake to allow First Nations to be shuffled to the side again. We will not accept mere 'participation' in a unilateral, top-down, Crown-led process," said the chiefs in the Jan. 19 letter.
'A lost opportunity'
Dayna Scott said she too was disappointed to see the draft terms of reference. The York University professor and Ring of Fire expert was one of three people who originally wrote to the federal government requesting they initiate the regional assessment.
"I think they do have to completely restart, and that's because they really need to have an Indigenous partner jurisdiction and they need to do that in a government-to-government manner that doesn't tokenize their involvement," Scott said in an interview with CBC News.
What Minister Guilbeault should do, said Scott, is pause the process and sit down with all affected and interested First Nations in the area to discuss how they can proceed forward with a comprehensive impact assessment that includes consideration of sustainability, climate impacts and include a gender-based analysis.
"Instead, it looks like the feds have planned kind of a narrowly scoped study that is instrumentally organized in order to facilitate mining and development," Scott said, calling the draft terms of reference "a lost opportunity."