Ontario and Matawa First Nations have reached a momentous agreement that paves the way for progress in developing the lucrative but lumbering Ring of Fire mining project.
The province’s Ministry of Northern Development and Mines said Wednesday that the agreement had been signed by the province and the chiefs of all nine member First Nations of the Matawa Tribal Council.
The agreement will facilitate development of the swamp some 540 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.. The region, dubbed “Canada’s next oilsands” is estimated to house $60 billion in minerals including chromite, nickel and copper.
“This regional framework agreement is a landmark achievement in community and regional discussions,” said Michael Gravelle, Ontario’s Minister of Northern Development and Mines.
No details of the agreements were revealed, with a government spokeswoman saying there are no intentions to do so at this time. But the release did mention the deal would mean “enhanced participation in the environmental assessment process” for First Nations.
A lack of consultation on the environmental assessment process had left many of the Matawa First Nations feeling slighted.
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The deal follows months of intense negotiations over a number of key sticking points. Some of the key issues included environmental monitoring, resource revenue-sharing arrangements and regional and community infrastructure and social assistance.
The province has been eager to settle the issues as it eyes billions of dollars in royalties it could receive if and when the project takes off.
But the initial excitement that followed the discovery of mineral deposits in the area nearly a decade ago has waned. Miners have struggled with slumping commodity prices in recent years.
Negotiations began in earnest in September between the province’s chief negotiator, Frank Iacobucci, and Bob Rae, who worked on behalf of the Matawa nations. The process was expected to take about a year.
A lack of agreement between the province and First Nations had deterred some miners from making investments.
Mining giant Cliffs Natural Resources, the biggest player in the 5,000 square kilometre area, cited a lack of progress between government and First Nations as a major reason behind its decision to suspend its $3.3 billion Black Thor chromite project last year.
Noront Resources Ltd., the Toronto-based miner with the most advanced project in the region, said Wednesday it is encouraged by the news.
"We've always felt that having the right conversations is essential for progress in the Ring of Fire, and we expect that development will now be able move ahead in a timely fashion," said President and CEO Alan Coutts.
The chiefs, acting on behalf of their communities, expressed optimism that the agreement would be meaningful in the long-term.
“I’ve seen many framework type processes come and go, and MOUs, and some have had beneficial results but many have not gone anywhere,” said Chief Elijah K. Moonias of Marten Falls First Nation, who has been only of the most vocal critics of the Ring of Fire.
“I am optimistic that this regional framework allows us to be more involved in development and the decision-making that is going to happen.”
Meanwhile, Chief Cornelius Wabasse of Webequie First Nation, one of the communities closest to the Ring of Fire, noted the agreement is just one part of negotiations it’s involved in with the province. It continues to talk with the province about the impact of the Ring of Fire to the small, remote community.
Many of the other chiefs expressed hope the agreement will show they are open for business and understand the need to balance economic interests with environmental and social impacts.