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Life on the line

Facing down governments and industry, this First Nation makes a promise: There’ll be no development in the Ring of Fire without its consent

On a foggy morning, Neskantaga First Nation community members take their cedar canoes to check the fishing nets for sturgeon.
On a foggy morning, Neskantaga First Nation community members take their cedar canoes to check the fishing nets for sturgeon.Logan Turner/CBC

Clayton John Moonias reaches through a heavy morning fog to grab the net he set days earlier.

As he lifts the line out of the water, Moonias flashes a knowing look to his son Landon, who’s seated up front, and pulls in the first of nearly a dozen Lake Sturgeon he’ll harvest that morning.

His family has fished these waters along the Attawapiskat River in remote northern Ontario for generations. For him and others from Neskantaga First Nation, the sturgeon are a way of life.

“Sturgeon is a very important food source. It’s an important part of who we are as a nation,” Neskantaga’s chief, Wayne Moonias, says as he watches Clayton John slip another fish into a tarp on the floor of the cedar canoe.

“This is what we’re fighting for,” Moonias says.

Neskantaga is an Ojibway First Nation with about 300 members living on its reserve some 400 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.

The First Nation has long been among the most vocal critics of plans to build a proposed road that would connect the Ring of Fire mineral deposit to the highway networks and manufacturing might of Ontario’s south. Now, they’re working to start a sturgeon stewardship program in an effort to protect the fish from proposed development.

Landon Moonias keeps the cedar canoe balanced as his father Clayton John checks the nets for sturgeon.
Landon Moonias keeps the cedar canoe balanced as his father, Clayton John, checks the nets for sturgeon.
Clayton John Moonias checks the nets for sturgeon on a foggy morning in Beteau Lake.
Clayton John Moonias keeps on top of the sturgeon on a foggy morning in Beteau Lake.
Clayton John Moonias holds up one of the larger sturgeon caught during a morning ride out to the fish nets.
Clayton John holds up one of the larger sturgeon caught during a morning ride out to the fish nets.
Back at the campsite, Landon Moonias weighs one of the sturgeon caught in the fishing nets during a community gathering in early August 2022.
Back at the campsite, Landon Moonias weighs one of the sturgeon caught in the fishing nets during a community gathering in early August 2022.
images expandDuring a community gathering on the land, people from Neskantaga First Nation harvested sturgeon to send home to feed elders and other community members.

Even with the most optimistic of estimates, shovels for the proposed Ring of Fire project are years away from going into the ground, but people in Neskantaga First Nation feel a growing sense of urgency.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has made his intentions clear about opening up the Ring of Fire for development, and big players in the mining and electric vehicle (EV) industries are circling.

Staring down plans that threaten to forever change the way of life for his community and thousands of other Indigenous people in the area, Chief Moonias makes a promise.

“Our people will have a say in what goes on in our traditional lands and our river system, and we have not given our free, prior or informed consent.”


An aerial view is shown of the Esker campsite, located next to the Eagle's Nest deposit in the Ring of Fire.
The Esker campsite sits adjacent to the Eagle's Nest mining project within the Ring of Fire. Wyloo Metals, which owns mining rights to Eagle's Nest, says the area is home to one of the world's best, undeveloped nickel sulfide bodies. (Submitted by Wyloo Metals)

‘A globally significant project’

Since the Ring of Fire was first discovered in 2007, there have been alternating waves of enthusiasm about developing the large crescent-shaped deposit of minerals in Treaty 9 territory, nestled within the James Bay lowlands in northern Ontario.

Once called “the most promising mineral development opportunity in a century,” with its possible economic impact compared to the Alberta oilsands, the initial excitement was about chromite, a hard metal used in the creation of stainless steel.

Successive governments tried to bring everyone to the table to advance the project, but those efforts were stalled as global chromite prices crashed in the early 2010s, and critical infrastructure to access the mining area remained undeveloped.

The area is also in the traditional territories of more than a dozen First Nations. Some, like Marten Falls and Webequie, have been vocal proponents of its development, while others have voiced opposition. Several have not made their positions public.

As conversations with First Nations ebbed and flowed over the years, the focus has shifted to other minerals needed to build EVs and battery storage systems like nickel, lithium, cobalt and copper.

And the pressure to extract those minerals is mounting.

In the spring of 2022, Ford and several key ministers laid out plans to become “the No. 1 manufacturer of electric battery-operated cars in North America.”

“You can’t be green without mining. You can’t develop as Ontario wants and transform our economy into a green economy without accessing the critical minerals out of the Ring of Fire,” Ontario Minister of Mines George Pirie recently told CBC News.

WATCH | George Pirie says First Nations are leading development in Ring of Fire:

That idea is just a new public relations campaign for an old industry, says Jamie Kneen, the Canada program co-lead for MiningWatch Canada, a non-governmental organization based in Ottawa that acts as an industry watchdog.

“What’s different is that the justification [for mining] is being framed in terms of the energy transition, and I find that really problematic because it’s not a deep enough restructuring to address the climate crisis,” Kneen says.

But the federal government has also taken a keen interest in the Ring of Fire, having initiated a regional assessment into the area in February 2020 to examine the possible cumulative impacts of industrial development.

Canada is expected to announce its own critical minerals strategy this fall, backed by an investment of $3.8 billion over six years, and seems interested in developing the area.

In April 2022, federal Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson wrote to Greg Rickford, then minister of northern development, mines and Indigenous affairs. Wilkinson was looking to work together with Ontario over the coming year to “identify the top growth opportunities” in the province, including the Ring of Fire, and create a plan “toward the acceleration of these opportunities,” according to a letter obtained by CBC News.

During a late-August meeting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ford also discussed “the potential of the Ring of Fire to provide the minerals necessary to make batteries for electric vehicles,” according to a news release from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The political backing has led to a growing number of international auto and EV battery manufacturers announcing multibillion-dollar investments and agreements to secure their access to critical minerals from Canada.

An employee at the Windsor Assembly Plant works inside the chassis of the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, the industry’s first-ever electrified minivan.
An employee at the Windsor Assembly Plant in southwestern Ontario works inside the chassis of the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, the industry’s first-ever electrified minivan. (Stellantis)

This is just the start, says Flavio Volpe, president of Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association. He says more deals are in the works.

“To make two million cars a year, you need two million car batteries. You can’t do that profitably by sourcing the materials — the lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel — from China, or Bolivia or Australia.”

Even more exciting for Canada’s auto and EV battery industry, Volpe added, is a new incentive for American consumers to buy electric vehicles — a tax credit only available for EVs that are manufactured in North America, and source most of the critical minerals and battery materials from countries the U.S. considers a free trade partner.

The Ring of Fire is set to play an important role in decarbonization, said Luca Giacovazzi, chief executive officer of Wyloo Metals, an Australian mining firm that recently purchased claims for the Eagle’s Nest deposit in the region.

“We did a really extensive screening around the world of nickel opportunities — nickel being an important component to a [lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide] battery — and when we did that, Eagle’s Nest is one of the best undeveloped nickel sulfide bodies around the world,” Giacovazzi told CBC News in a September interview.

WATCH | Wyloo CEO says there’s opportunity for First Nations in Ring of Fire

While the rush of investments from auto and EV battery manufacturers is happening now, neither Giacovazzi nor the provincial government was willing to put a timeline on when minerals may start coming out of the ground, saying several steps — like environmental assessments, feasibility studies and permits — must be completed before that can happen.

But they were both clear on one thing.

“It’s a globally significant project,” Pirie said recently.


A photo of Neskantaga's campsite at Beteau Lake, with cedar canoes lining the shores and tents mingled in with a handful of cabins.
Dozens of community members from Neskantaga First Nation set up for their weeklong land gathering at Beteau Lake, about 60 kilometres east along the Attawapiskat River. (Logan Turner/CBC)

Protecting the sturgeon

There’s a constant buzz of activity back at the makeshift campsite set up at Beteau Lake, 60 kilometres east of Neskantaga.

Children chase one another between tents. Community members share stories and laugh around the fire. Food preparation is always going on.

About 50 people from the First Nation travelled down the Attawapiskat River — most by motor-powered canoes and portage, some by float plane — for a weeklong community gathering on the land during the first week of August.

For many of the young people, it’s their first time in this part of Neskantaga’s homeland. Others were raised here; their families’ traplines stretch across the area.

Someone washes their face in the lake on a foggy morning.
Domenic Moonias, 60, grew up in this area around Beteau Lake. He washes his face in the lake on a foggy morning.
Young men laugh on a balcony above a fire.
Some of the young men from Neskantaga First Nation share a laugh while standing on a deck above the campfire.
Several men from Neskantaga talk one afternoon while at the land gathering.
Looking out at Beteau Lake, a group of men from Neskantaga, including several band council members, discuss plans for the coming day.
With the sun setting, children play along the dock on Beteau Lake.
As the sun begins to set, several children play along the dock, underneath an 'Every Child Matters' flag.
images expandDozens of people from Neskantaga First Nation have come to Beteau Lake for a weeklong land gathering.

“There’s a lot of life on the land right now and to have these experiences with our young people … there’s no amount of money that can be attached to that,” Chief Moonias says.

In one corner of the camp, removed from the row of tents, community members prepare the sturgeon caught earlier.

Some will be cooked — smoked, boiled or baked over the fire — for dinner that night. The rest are dried, to be sent back to Neskantaga and given to elders and other families in need.

A line of Lake Sturgeon caught earlier in the day hang in the tree while community members cook some of the fish for dinner.
As some Lake Sturgeon caught earlier in the day hang to dry among the trees, community members from Neskantaga eat fish for dinner. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

Two scientists from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada are there too. The First Nation had invited them to join their land camp and help establish their sturgeon stewardship program.

Claire Farrell, one of the conservation scientists, steps forward with a collection of tools.

A group of youth huddle around the makeshift cutting board and peer over Farrell’s shoulder. She takes a sample from one of the fins and says that when dried, the rings around the bone can be counted to determine the age of the sturgeon.

Samples could also be collected from different parts of the sturgeon to examine their diet and look at possible contaminants in the water, Farrell adds.

A group of people from Neskantaga huddle around a scientist, who shows them how to take samples from a Lake Sturgeon.
Claire Farrell, a conservation scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, shows some young people from Neskantaga how to take samples from a sturgeon. (Logan Turner/CBC)

“The goal, specifically, of showing the youth this is to help give them a toolset for being guardians and stewards of the lands they’re on [in addition] to the traditional teachings that they gain from their community members.”

By blending traditional knowledge with Western science, Farrell says, scientists and Indigenous people can work to protect species that are at risk in Ontario and vitally important to First Nations.

Lake Sturgeon in the Attawapiskat River system has been listed as a special concern on Ontario’s species-at-risk list since 2008, when the Endangered Species Act took effect.

The sturgeon in the area appear “to be the most robust and least at risk of the provincial populations, in part due to its distance from industrial development and active commercial fisheries,” according to a risk evaluation report completed in 2017 by the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario, an independent provincial agency.

People in Neskantaga are worried that will change as the process to open up the Ring of Fire moves forward.

A young man takes a sample from the fin of a Lake Sturgeon caught earlier in the day.
Landon Moonias takes a sample from a sturgeon that could later be sent south to a laboratory to help identify any possible contaminants in the water. (Logan Turner/CBC)

“My family grew up here. They lived here, and they did a lot of sturgeon fishing,” says Domenic Moonias, 60, who came to the Beteau Lake area every year as a child.

Pointing to the river, he says there are sturgeon spawning grounds all along the rapids.

“The fish will change. If you put lard or grease into the water, the sturgeon will go away. They’ll move. So my concern is if they make a bridge, the sturgeon won’t be around there.”

That bridge Domenic is worried about could be just years away from cutting through Neskantaga’s traditional territory and across the Attawapiskat River. And during this land camp, community members are going right to the proposed site of their fears.


An aerial view of the Attawapiskat River is seen in this photo.
The Attawapiskat River flows east from Attawapiskat Lake to James Bay. Several First Nations are located along the river, and rely on it for their way of life. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

A balancing act

In an air-conditioned hotel conference room in Thunder Bay, Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse speaks to members of the media ahead of an open house about the status of the environmental assessment into the First Nation’s proposed supply road.

That proposed 105-kilometre road will connect Webequie east to McFaulds Lake, an area within the Ring of Fire area that contains a significant number of the minerals discovered, including the Eagle’s Nest deposit.

“We’re hoping to create infrastructure, develop opportunities like tourism, and other economic opportunities and job opportunities in the community,” Wabasse says.

The First Nation has been leading the environmental assessment since proposing the road in 2018. It’s one of three projects that will together make up the 450-kilometre all-season roadway connecting the Ring of Fire to the provincial highway network.



​Far too long, we’ve been left out of the picture. We have never been part of major developments that have happened in our areas.

Bruce Achneepineskum,chief of Marten Falls First Nation


Marten Falls is leading an environmental assessment into their proposed access road, while both First Nations are working together on the Northern Road Link project, which will bridge the two projects.

Otherwise dependent on increasingly unpredictable ice roads, Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum says his First Nation has been waiting for an all-season road for 20 years to help the community bring in the supplies needed to build necessary infrastructure.

“I’m thinking about the youth and their future, what kind of world they will have, and what kind of services they will be provided in terms of training and jobs,” says Achneepineskum, adding it’s important for First Nations to take the lead in mining projects in their lands.

“Far too long, we’ve been left out of the picture. We have never been part of major developments that have happened in our areas,” he says. “Today, we have an opportunity to come together as First Nations in terms of how we move forward with resource development in our territories.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford shakes hands with Chief Cornelius Wabasse of Webequie First Nation, left, and Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum, centre, after signing an agreement to move forward on building the Northern Road Link in the Ring of Fire area
Ontario Premier Doug Ford shakes hands with Chief Cornelius Wabasse of Webequie First Nation, left, and Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum, centre, in March 2020 after signing an agreement to move forward on building the Northern Road Link in the Ring of Fire area. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Both chiefs say they understand Indigenous people across the north have many concerns about the impacts of any development.

“I’m a traditional hunter and gatherer on the lands that are close to the Ring of Fire. I was born up there,” Achneepineskum says. “I was hunting up there last fall and I’m going to again this fall. I don’t want to see that destroyed.”

But any development will have an inevitable impact, says Adam Kirkwood, a PhD candidate at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., who specializes in boreal ecology in the Hudson Bay lowlands.

The Ring of Fire and proposed roads are located within some of North America’s largest sections of boreal forest, untouched by industrial activity and within the world’s second largest peatland, a type of wetland particularly effective at storing carbon, Kirkwood says.

“There’s been a lot of generalized concern because it’s a very important region.”

But there will be some impacts to the sensitive ecosystems, including changes to the permafrost and hydrology of the area, Kirkwood adds.

Related Links

Road construction would also affect wildlife populations, including the expansion of predator territories that use the roads to travel longer distances, said Daniel Kneeshaw. As director of the Centre for Forest Research at the University of Quebec’s Montreal campus, he’s been studying the impact of growing road networks in remote parts of the province for decades.

Kneeshaw also warns about creeping industrial development, as the desire for more economic growth can lead to expanded road networks.

“We need some way to pay for them, and resource extraction has been the driver of what pays for road development as we go further.”

Wyloo’s head, Giacovazzi, acknowledges that opening up the area would mean more than just one mine. He says there are “many decades worth of work in the Ring of Fire,” but it all must be done in consultation with First Nations.

The duty to consult is enshrined in Canadian law, says Dayna Scott, an associate professor and research chair in environmental law and justice at York University in Toronto. But First Nations are increasingly frustrated with the limitations of consultation, she adds.

WATCH | Dayna Scott talks about Canada’s duty to consult

“It’s troubling the way the processes are laid out,” says Neskantaga’s Chief Moonias. “You’re just merely a stakeholder in these processes. Whether you’re dealing with a road, or whatever issue comes up, your engagement doesn’t include giving your consent.”

But when it comes to weighing the possible benefits and hopes of First Nations, along with the concerns about environmental, social, cultural and health impacts of development, “it’s a balance,” Achneepineskum says.

He said that’s what the environmental assessments are for — to help their First Nations make decisions on the best way forward.

The long road to the Ring of Fire

These are among key steps that need to happen before each access route is

complete

Northern Road

Link

(October 2020)

Marten Falls

Community

Access Road

(May 2018)

Webequie

Supply Road

(May 2018)

Started

1

Intention to build road

2

Terms of reference

submitted for

environmental

assessment(EA)

Northern Road Link achieved this step in April 2022

3

Terms of reference

approved by Ontario, EA begins

Webequie Supply Road and Marten Falls

Community Access Road achieved this step in October 2021

4

Selection of preferred road route

5

Canada issues impact statement

6

Consultation occurs for draft EA

7

Final EA is submitted to Ontario

8

Province makes decision

if project goes ahead

9

Agreements reached for funding, road design, construction

CBC News

520 artboard; medium screen

The long road to the Ring of Fire

These are among key steps that need to happen before each access route is complete

Marten Falls

Community

Access Road

(May 2018)

Webequie

Supply Road

(May 2018)

Northern Road

Link

(October 2020)

Started

1

Intention to build road

2

Terms of reference

submitted for

environmental

assessment(EA)

Northern Road Link achieved this step in April 2022

3

Terms of reference

approved by Ontario, EA begins

Webequie Supply Road and Marten Falls

Community Access Road achieved this step in October 2021

4

Selection of

preferred road route

5

Canada issues impact statement

6

Consultation occurs for draft EA

7

Final EA is submitted to Ontario

8

Province makes

decision if project

goes ahead

9

Agreements reached for funding, road design, construction

CBC News

320 artboard; small screen

The long road to the Ring of Fire

These are among key steps that need to happen before each access route is

complete

Marten Falls

Community

Access Road

(May 2018)

Northern

Road Link

(October

2020)

Webequie

Supply Road

(May 2018)

Started

1

Intention to

build road

2

Terms of

reference

submitted for

environmental assessment

(EA)

Northern Road Link achieved this step in April 2022

3

Terms of

reference

approved by

Ontario, EA

begins

Webequie Supply Road and Marten Falls Community Access Road achieved this step in Oct. 2021

4

Selection of

preferred road route

5

Canada issues impact statement

6

Consultation occurs for

draft EA

7

Final EA is

submitted to

Ontario

8

Province makes

decision if project goes ahead

9

Agreements reached for

funding, road design,

construction

CBC News

Despite the growing enthusiasm for Ring of Fire development, the two chiefs say the processes won’t be rushed.

Estimates from the project teams for each of the three road segments show that decisions about the roads may not happen until 2027, subject to further delays.

“Best case, three years from here. Worst case, [it will be] seven years before a completed environmental impact assessment,” says Michael Fox, a consultant working on two of the three road projects.

And without that “infrastructure corridor” proposed by the two First Nations, Wyloo’s CEO Giacovazzi says, “we ultimately won’t be mining.”


A half dozen cedar canoes power their way through the rapids of Attawapiskat River, as community members from Neskantaga First Nation head toward the proposed site for a bridge that will form part of the road to the Ring of Fire.
Motor-powered cedar canoes surge down the Attawapiskat River as community members from Neskantaga head to a proposed site for a bridge that would form part of the road to the Ring of Fire. (Logan Turner/CBC)

The crossing

Along the Attawapiskat River, the cedar canoes carrying dozens of Neskantaga community members move with ease, navigating a mix of smooth waters and fast-flowing rapids.

As he guides the canoe, Clayton John points out landmarks. Two moose were harvested from this island last fall. Over there, his father told him, are grave sites of past community members. Further downriver, there’s a historic campsite where families would stop to fish for sturgeon.

Neskantaga’s reserve may appear a long way away on a map, but Clayton John shows how he and other community members use and rely on the lands and waters to sustain their way of life. He’s worried that will all change.

After a voyage of nearly two hours, the canoes slide into some reeds beside a rocky clearing to let their occupants clamber onto shore.

In recent years, Neskantaga has been actively trying to assert their rights and jurisdiction over the land, despite being home to the country’s longest boil-water advisory, an emergency declaration since 2013 after seven people died by suicide, and a major housing shortage.

Neskantaga elder Maggie Sakanee stands by the fire after filleting some walleye that were caught.
Maggie Sakanee, an elder from Neskantaga, says she can't imagine a road cutting through the waters and lands where she grew up. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

Sitting on the rocky outcrop while filleting some walleye caught on the trip, elder Maggie Sakanee says her community’s health is intimately connected to the northern land and waters.

Sakanee’s family traplines border both sides of the river. She worries about the cost for any industrial development, saying it would exacerbate the Neskantaga’s crises by disturbing their ancestors’ graves, pollute the river systems, and destroy the lands that bring life and healing.

“My parents used to tell me, ‘Try to protect our land.’ That’s what they thought, so that’s what I’ve been trying to do,” the elder says.

If a road is built through Neskantaga’s homelands and across the Attawapiskat River, Sakanee says she’s worried there’s one question her future grandchildren will ask.

“Why did grandma let it happen? It’s hard for me to say, ‘OK, build the road.’ I’m not for that. Leave it the way it is.”

A Neskantaga community member hangs a Neskantaga land declaration around a tree near the site of the proposed bridge crossing along the Attawapiskat River.
Domenic Moonias hangs a Neskantaga land declaration around a tree near the site of the proposed bridge crossing along the Attawapiskat River. (Logan Turner/CBC)

Suddenly, someone calls out, “The proposed crossing is just around the corner.” The co-ordinates for one of two proposed sites of the bridge are another few kilometres downstream.

A handful of land declarations, some food and water, and ribbons that will be part of a ceremony are grabbed hurriedly, and half of the boats pull away from the clearing. They head down the next set of rapids and around the corner, out of sight.

That’s what Neskantaga community members came to see — a part of their homelands that could look vastly and irreparably different within a matter of a decade.

The sun sets over the dock in Beteau Lake, in northern Ontario.
Community members from Neskantaga take in the setting sun from the dock at their Beteau Lake campsite. (Marc Doucette/CBC)
About the Author

Executive Producer: Alex Brockman

Editor: Marlene Habib

Graphics: Graeme Bruce and Wendy Martinez

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