The nickel and chromite deposits in a vast area of the James Bay lowlands have been compared to Alberta's oil sands in terms of economic potential.
Tuesday's case is a critical battle in the long fight by First Nations to control the pace of development in the most isolated part of the province.
U.S. mining giant Cliffs Natural Resources hopes to build a 340-kilometre road to truck its raw ore south for processing. It would snake across an esker — a long ridge — rising out of the muskeg, cross 85 waterways and three major rivers, and run right through the traditional lands of Neskantaga First Nation.
Chief Peter Moonias, wants a say in how — and even if — the road is built.
“We're not just stakeholders,” Moonias said. “We are people that live on the land that came from the land.”
Moonias said Cliffs's economic clout shouldn't trump his community's treaty rights. The entire economy of Neskantaga is less than the $6 million Cliffs’ president makes in a year, he said.
Moonias said once there's a road to the mine site, it'll be too late to halt development and put environmental protections in place.
“It's going to be huge,” Moonias said. “It's something that has a national interest, like the Alberta oil sands. This is the same thing, if not worse.”
He's not the only one drawing comparisons to the oilsands.
Ontario politicians use the comparison in a more flattering light, while promoting the area's economic potential and seeking federal help to develop the area.
Provincial mining minister Rick Bartolucci said Ontario is already in private talks with Cliffs about building the road.
“Once the agreement is finalized — then obviously the parameters of the agreement will be made public,” he said.
But Ontario's Mining Commissioner has the first say on whether Cliffs can go ahead.
Cliffs needs permission from the commissioner to build the road along a route already staked by another mining company. Canada Chrome Corporation (a subsidiary of KWG) planned to build a railway to the Ring of Fire.
The Mining Commissioner is a little-known administrative tribunal that has ruled on mining issues since the 1800s — but rarely have First Nations had a say.
The commissioner will hear arguments on Thursday about whether that should change.
Eviction notices issued
First Nations are making other moves to assert control.
Six communities issued eviction notices to 22 mining companies operating in the Ring of Fire, claiming their desire for a full, public environmental assessment of the project is being ignored.
Moonias said government and mining companies claim they want to include First Nations in the development, but they don't really mean it.
“We're being told [by mining companies and government] we'll take this from you, but we want to sit down and talk to you about it and then we'll take it anyways," Moonias said. "We have nothing in return."
The evictions inform mining companies they have 30 days to leave the area. One mining company executive expressed concern about the move and said it's clear First Nations are dissatisfied with the status quo.
A spokesperson for Ontario's mining minister said he is trying to set up meetings with First Nations and "hopes that all communities will want to see the prosperity that can result from participation" in mining activity.
A lawyer who specializes in treaty rights and mining disputes said Thursday's hearing is just the first of many court battles ahead.
Bill Gallagher said the dispute about the environmental assessment process is also headed to court.
“This is just a stick in the spokes as the main action heats up," Gallagher said. "That, too, is going to court and that will be another major sign post in the road to resources."
Gallagher added the delays could be avoided if the province and mining companies viewed First Nations as partners, rather than rivals.
“There are competing agendas with totally different consequences,” he said. “The fundamental one is the native rights issue — but it would appear that [development of the Ring of Fire] is further off down the road than perhaps people had hoped for.”