Ring of Fire road study produces inconclusive results about transportation in Ontario's remote north
Report suggests more study needed to determine viability of all-weather access for remote First Nations
A $785,000 study, jointly funded by Canada and Ontario, suggests more study is needed before deciding if an all-weather road should be built in a mineral-rich area known as the Ring of Fire in northern Ontario.
The study was announced in March 2015 at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada convention in Toronto and was widely seen as a step towards getting "significant" nickel and chromite deposits out of the muskeg and off to markets.
"Today's announcement represents our federal government's latest meaningful contribution to helping the province enhance the economic potential of the Ring of Fire," Canada's then-Minister of Natural Resources Conservative Greg Rickford said at the time.
But it turns out, the study was never really about mining.
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"I'm just so frustrated by the lack of leadership on the Ring of Fire," said NDP MP Charlie Angus. "This study was going to be the one that was going to give us the road map forward, literally. Now it's just going to be kicked down the road for more delay, more study and more excuses."
The document, obtained by CBC News, is titled "All Season Community Road Study, Final Report June 30, 2016" and states:
"This study has always been considered to be focused on an all-season community service road rather than an industrial road to connect to the Ring of Fire mineralized zone. Its intention was always to (1) link the four communities together; and (2) link the communities to the existing highway system."
The scope explicitly excludes discussion of transportation infrastructure to Noront Resources' proposed nickel mine or any other industrial activity.
The four First Nations that took part in the study, Webequie, Eabametoong, Neskantaga and Nibinamik, are among those closest to the mineral deposits and most affected if a road was built along an east-west corridor.
Consultations with the communities raised many concerns about who would own the road and how it would impact traditional cultural activities such as hunting, trapping and fishing.
"It was fairly clear to the study team that most people are not ready to make a final determination in support or not in support of an all-season road," the report concludes. "Many people made it clear that the study process should continue in order to provide more information."
Ontario Mining Minister Michael Gravelle said those discussions are ongoing and there is no timeline for coming to definitive answers.
The study was led by the First Nations and its up to them to release it to the public, he added.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at a cabinet retreat in Sudbury, said the federal government prefers a collaborative approach to development.
"We will work with local people, with municipal leadership, with the province, with experts to figure out what the best investments are that are going to benefit the jobs and opportunities in the region," Trudeau said.
But Angus said the Liberals, both federal and provincial, are "letting each other off the hook" and dodging the economic, social and Indigenous issues at play in the Ring of Fire.
$5.2 million in savings annually
"This is an opportunity to say 'we get it, we've got to make this project happen in a timely way and in a just way that involves the First Nations communities,'" Angus said. "Instead we're being fed a lot of rhetoric and my fear is we're going to lose opportunities."
The study says the combined savings of an all-weather road would amount to $5.2 million annually.
The benefits of those savings would go largely to the federal and provincial governments that subsidize freight haulage for such things as diesel fuel to generate electricity and building materials.
Noront Resources declined an interview request from CBC News, saying the company could not comment on a report it has not seen.