On­tario’s Ring of Fire plan has ma­jor flaws


Re­cently, Premier Kath­leen Wynne threw down the gaunt­let with Matawa First Na­tions, de­mand­ing it de­cide once and for all on the route of a long-dis­cussed road to ac­cess the min­eral-rich Ring of Fire re­gion in the prov­ince’s north­east.

The prob­lem with the premier’s chal­lenge is that it is her gov­ern­ment that has failed to come up with a strong di­rec­tion for this sup­posed road to riches. The gov­ern­ment has left it to var­i­ous min­ing com­pa­nies to pro­pose po­ten­tial routes while pro­vid­ing some funds to four com­mu­ni­ties that would be af­fected by the build­ing of the min­ing road and sub­se­quent open­ing up of their tra­di­tional ter­ri­tory to devel­op­ment.

The gov­ern­ment is will­ing to put $1 bil­lion on the table to pay for the road and in­vest more than $6.9 mil­lion in ne­go­ti­a­tions with Matawa First Na­tions for re­gional in­fra­struc­ture among oth­ers.

Un­for­tu­nately, it has done lit­tle to ac­tu­ally as­sess the broader eco­nomic, so­cial, and en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts and op­por­tu­ni­ties of de­vel­op­ing the re­gion. This is a fail­ure that speaks vol­umes about its weak ap­proach to assess­ing the pros and cons of ma­jor de­vel­op­ments in re­mote re­gions.

As sci­en­tists who have been work­ing in the Far North for more than a decade, we’ve seen no ef­fort to con­sider how, at the re­gional level, we might bet­ter en­sure that projects re­sult in real, sus­tain­able gains for First Na­tion com­mu­ni­ties — and all On­tar­i­ans. We’ve seen no ef­fort to strate­gi­cally as­sess what is at stake eco­log­i­cally be­fore in­tro­duc­ing mines, roads and trans­mis­sion lines into one of the world’s last in­tact wild ar­eas.

We’ve seen no ef­fort to en­gage First Na­tions and other On­tar­i­ans in build­ing a vi­sion for this glob­ally unique re­gion that serves as: a source of min­eral wealth; a store­house for car­bon cru­cial to the fight against cli­mate change; a refuge for threat­ened species, such as cari­bou, and a liv­ing foun­da­tion for First Na­tion cul­ture tied to treaty and In­dige­nous rights in On­tario’s Far North.

We are putting the cart be­fore the horse in de­bat­ing whether roads should be built to serve mines or com­mu­ni­ties, or both.

The gov­ern­ment has had plenty of no­tice, and ad­vice, about the in­ad­e­quacy of its plan­ning pro­cesses in the Ring of Fire. Re­form of On­tario’s out­dated En­vi­ron­men­tal As­sess­ment Act has been rec­om­mended by both the En­vi­ron­men­tal Com­mis­sioner for On­tario and the prov­ince’s Au­di­tor Gen­eral. These ex­perts have iden­ti­fied the need for a bet­ter process for de­ter­min­ing the so­cial, cul­tural, en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic ben­e­fits of any given devel­op­ment project.

Most min­ing projects in On­tario are not even sub­ject to in­di­vid­ual en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ments. That means we can’t take a closer look at the im­pacts — let alone mer­its — of in­di­vid­ual mines be­fore the shov­els hit the ground. That’s not even con­sid­er­ing the ad­di­tional im­pacts of trans­mis­sion cor­ri­dors or rail lines needed to ser­vice them.

The premier’s ef­fort to place re­spon­si­bil­ity for a holdup of the Ring of Fire road on First Na­tions is un­fair and mis­di­rected. It is her gov­ern­ment’s re­fusal to de­velop a com­pre­hen­sive re­gional ap­proach that con­sid­ers the trade-offs of devel­op­ment and pro­tec­tion more care­fully that is to blame.

In fact, rather than threat­en­ing more piece­meal plan­ning — such as “uni­lat­eral” con­sul­ta­tions with com­mu­ni­ties that “want” the road — Wynne should take the time to read the re­cently re­leased ad­vice of the fed­eral ex­pert panel on en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ment re­form.

The panel has clearly stated that the project-by-project as­sess­ment process cur­rently be­ing used in On­tario can­not be re­lied upon to de­liver on sus­tain­able re­gional out­comes. We need im­proved project-level as­sess­ment, as well as more ro­bust pro­cesses that help us ad­dress cu­mu­la­tive ef­fects, in­clud­ing the grow­ing im­pacts of cli­mate change.

Just as we can’t plan a neigh­bour­hood one road — or house — at a time, we can­not plan for sus­tain­able economies, healthy ecosys­tems and First Na­tions in­ter­ests one project at a time. In­stead, we need a vi­sion of where we want to go and an un­der­stand­ing of how in­di­vid­ual projects will or will not help get us there.

Wynne must now de­mand pro­vin­cial lead­er­ship on the Ring of Fire that pro­vides a clear “road map” for the devel­op­ment and con­ser­va­tion of the re­gion, rather than rely on cur­rent piece­meal plan­ning ef­forts and ul­ti­ma­tums that have us headed for the ditch. The road map in­cludes a path to­ward more far-sighted plan­ning in On­tario’s Far North.

Dr. Ch­eryl Chetkiewicz is a con­ser­va­tion sci­en­tist with Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety Canada and co-au­thor of Get­ting It Right in On­tario’s Far North.

Dr. Justina Ray is pres­i­dent and se­nior sci­en­tist at Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety Canada and a for­mer mem­ber of On­tario’s Far North Sci­ence Ad­vi­sory Panel.

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