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From Protest to Proponent: The Long, Winding Road to the Ring of Fire

Dec 14, 2022

It’s been over 15 years. Like a teenager, anxious to get their drivers’ license, the Ring of Fire (ROF) is entering a stage where it may go from a learners permit, to a G2.
Attendees at the Central Canada Resource Expo Conference on the Road Link to the Ring of Fire were updated on the benefits the road will have on the isolated Northwestern Ontario First Nations of Webequie, Marten Falls and several others.
Michael Fox, from Indigenous Community Engagement (ICE) kicked off the afternoon conference in Thunder Bay, Ontario in mid-September. The conference titled “Critical Minerals and the Central Role of Two Indigenous Communities was well attended with a full house seated comfortably at the Cineplex Theatre in Thunder Bay. Fox also participated in two other conferences which included discussions on the Northern Link Road, one in Toronto October 4th and one in Sudbury, October 22nd.
Fox pointed out the Ring of Fire quest has been going on since 2007 when it was discovered and confirmed by Noront Resources and Spider Resources.
During the first half of the Ring of Fire’s existence, companies like Cliffs Resources and Noront pegged their hopes on chromite, which is used to make stainless steel. But the market went flat. Cliffs sold to Noront and Noront recently sold to Wyloo Metals which changed its name to Ring of Fire Metals. Noront also explored a location for a ferrochrome smelter in Sault Ste. Marie which met with fierce local resistance. Other companies involved in the ROF include KWG and Juno Resources.
Today the critical minerals needed for the electric vehicle battery manufacturing has overtaken chromite as the primary pursuit with the focus on nickel, lithium, copper. Ontario Premier Doug Ford is keen on capitalizing on the demand for EV battery critical minerals.
Famously, in 2018 Ford declared that the Ring of Fire was going to open up under his watch even if he had to hop on a bulldozer himself. Ford has tasked several cabinet ministers to work with all stakeholders to turn the region into a world-class mining hub, an idea that was a central plank of his re-election campaign in the 2022 Ontario election. After the June provincial election, Ford named former Timmins Mayor George Pirie, a former mining executive, to be the Minister of Mining, with responsibility for the Ring of Fire.
That portfolio is new – it separated mining from the longstanding provincial ministry which has been known as the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines.
The environmental concerns about opening up these lands are with the carbon-rich peatlands of the James Bay Lowlands, about 540 kilometers northeast of Thunder Bay, and the unproven mineral deposits that lie underneath. Those in favour of mining in the Ring of Fire say the minerals could power the push to lower global greenhouse gas emissions as electric vehicles will replace gasoline engine vehicles. Environmentalists and some First Nations argue the costs of disturbing the region’s peatlands outweigh any possible benefits.
Before an ounce of nickel, lithium or other critical minerals can be mined, both Ontario and Canada Environmental Assessments must be completed to ensure the environment in the broadest sense of the word is protected. “It’s been 15 years since the Ring of Fire was discovered.” Fox said. “I know many remote communities, are challenged with the daily struggles of impoverished communities, making them the underclass in Canada,“ Fox said. “I think, the role of indigenous communities is more significant today,” added Fox. “At one point, Marten Falls and Webequie were protesting the Ring of Fire.”

Environmental Assessment Process

Webequie and Marten Falls First Nations went from being protesters to partners in the developments in the Ring of Fire area and must undertake an environmental assessment to make sure the best route is selected while protecting the natural and cultural social environment. Under the Canadian system of government, aspects of the environment are under federal jurisdiction such as free-swimming fish and their fishery habitat, spawning grounds; the provincial government has jurisdiction over the land, trees, resources. Air and climate change are jointly administered. A joint EA process may be established to avoid duplication of services and red tape. There are also possible financial cost sharing available between Ontario and Federal governments, but to date no agreements have been signed. An environmental assessment in Canada and Ontario is a decision-making tool, which helps identify, predict and evaluate the potential effects of a proposed project on the environment. Notice of the start of the EA are posted on the Ontario governments Environmental Registry page and the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada page. Once the detailed engineering, environmental, traditional studies, community information and public consultations, and public hearings are completed, the proponents submits their EA report to the Minister of Environment of Ontario and their counterpart in Ottawa.
“There is great potential in the development of the Ring of Fire for my community,” Chief Wabasse explained. “Webequie First Nation which is a small remote community with 151 residents on reserve and 250 off reserve. Community members leave for urban centres such as Toronto, Ottawa and other northern Ontario communities because of health, education and other reasons.”

Traditional Indigenous Values Are Part of the Environmental Assessment

Traditional indigenous principles are today part of the Environmental Assessment study in the Ring of Fire area. And we will do that through our three-tier model. The three-tier model was developed from our community and elders. The three-tier system consists of the Reservation, the Protected Area, and also the Mutual Benefit Area.

Making Informed Decisions

The First Nations want to generate information about the environmental impacts on their communities to make better, informed decisions for their people. “As the proponents of environmental and impact assessments Webequie and Marten Falls can define the scope of the studies properly to ensure we exercise our responsibility as environmental stewards of our homelands”, Chief Wabasse explained. “As an indigenous nations leading the environmental assessment, we can directly generate information to make informed decisions,” Chief Wabasse noted. Under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) the right of self-determination of indigenous nations, and the right to choose the type of development that is in harmony with their traditional values is supported.


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Pictured is Qasim Saddique, Principal of Suslop. In Qasim’s presentation he referred to the Ring of Fire Road Link as a historical event. He spoke of what the road means to the communities of Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations which are located in the Ring of Fire and what the project looks like.


Benefitting in the Wealth Generated by The Ring of Fire

First Nations will also identify opportunities, pathways for training, and employment and businesses for their community, their First Nation neighbors and for future partners so all can share in the benefits.
“When you see your community suffer poverty, isolation and see the prices of food and gas three times higher than Thunder Bay and have to wait a few days for the transportation to come in to Thunder Bay for health services it’s time to do something to make improvements”, said Bob Baxter Marten Falls representing Marten Falls First Nation.
“We want to protect our traditional practices, land, water and resources,” added Bob. “Yes, we hunt and fish. We have our freedom to hunt and fish which is a great asset for us. When I was young, our way of life was trapping and stuff like that”.
Several other First Nations provided technical submissions to the current EIA and Terms of Reference for the Northern Road Link. They are working with companies in the exploration field. Development has to be done in a sustainable manner, and sound environment for the protection of their lands and they have to have a protection policy in place. An all-season road will provide opportunities for youth and also link to Thunder Bay, Geraldton and access better education, health and cheaper food and clothing. As our chief Bruce Achneepineskum said “This road is an economic lifeline for our communities. And it will bring jobs training and prosperity where our youth currently have no opportunities.” These roads will eventually lead to the Ring of Fire and benefits for neighboring first communities mining companies, development of climate friendly electric car batteries.

Towards Building the Road

Qasim Saddique, the co-lead for the Northern Road Link on behalf of Marten Falls First Nation, provided an update. Michael Fox is the other co-lead on the Northern Road Link on behalf of Webequie First Nation. Qasim explained the way the mechanism through which these proponents take place. The Northern Road Link will eventually become a physical road build out of gravel, but before that can happen the joint environmental assessment will pinpoint several alternative options. At this point we don’t know where the road will be placed. Only options exist that will be evaluated in detail before a final preferred option will be selected based on detailed evaluation of impacts on the natural and the man-made environment or cultural values of the communities.
“Depending on the alternative we choose; it will be somewhere between 117 and 164 kilometers long,” Qasim pointed out, with about a 60 metres of cleared area, and a 100 metre right of way. It will be approximately a 20-metre-wide multiuse road, including undivided lanes, shoulders and ditches. It will be a gravel road primarily because of, of the requirements of the weather up north. The road will need time to settle.” It will foreseeably be a gravel road and there’ll be a number of water crossings, including one large bridge crossing the Attawapiskat River, and a number of several smaller bridges and culverts as well.

Qasim explained in addition to the actual length and width of the road right of way, a number of other parts to that infrastructure are required:
• aggregate sources, quarry sites,
• temporary access roads,
• temporary work areas
• construction camps

Working Group

A working group was put in place to oversee the overall development of the project. Two members from Marten Falls, Lawrence Baxter and Alanna Downy Baxter were appointed. And then two members from Webequie, Roy Spence and Gordon Wabasse. were appointed as well. Qasim Saddique was appointed on behalf of Marten Falls and Michael Fox on behalf of Webequie First Nation. The technical studies are delegated to them. A technical team led by SNC Lavalin, and Dillon Consulting conduct the environmental studies, engineering studies. Fox and Qasim consult with neighboring communities. The Northern Road Link connects the Marten Falls Community Access Road to the Webequie Supply Road. It is the link into the Ring of Fire. All three projects are independent, they all have their own primary function that is independent of each other’s own functions.

Alternative Routes

12 alternative corridors will be examined. “You can end up with a number of different set combinations as their final preferred alternative. Qasim said. “A number of studies have to be done, a lot of consultation and conversations have to take place. Indigenous knowledge has to be collected from neighboring communities, from Marten Falls and from Webequie before that decision can be made.”

Time Frame for Completion

It takes about 15 years to build a mine in Ontario right now, out of those 15 years, a big chunk is the environmental impact assessment and the regulatory permitting process. By way of a road and mine-building timetable, Noront Resources — now owned by Ring of Fire Metals, a subsidiary of Australia’s Wyloo Metals has projected a timetable for its Eagle’s Nest nickel project in the Ring of Fire showing the start of construction of a north-south road in the middle of next 2023 with the completion by mid-2027.


For this article and more visit the digital copy of: The Northern Ontario Mining Report

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