The stalled Ring of Fire mining project finds itself at a critical crossroads with governments in Ottawa and Ontario needing to work together now more than ever. That will mean leadership that actually engages all parties and contributes to sustainable development.
Otherwise, this "project of the century for Northern Ontario" -- with values from $50 billion to $120 billion being cited following discovery of world-class chromite deposits for stainless steel markets -- may have to wait for another generation.
And with the ore under their feet, and time on their side, many First Nations communities are making it clear they can wait.
For some, 2013 had started off promising. In February, Ottawa had appointed Tony Clement to quarterback the Ring of Fire federal team to help break the inertia. A multi-department secretariat was announced. A modest but significant $4.5 million Aboriginal skills training project was made, picking up a New Democrat recommendation from the 2012 Natural Resources Committee study on northern resources development.
Testimony from that study noted that skills training was tied to project permits, which meant no general pool of skilled Aboriginal workers was ever in place to win jobs over fly-in miners.
Well, the quarterback in Ottawa dropped the ball. The lack of progress led to Cliffs suspending project operations. It seems Clement's partisan DNA was not well suited to play ball with a party of a different colour at Queens Park.
Then came The Ontario Mining Commission decision favouring the railway-friendly junior mining company KWG's right-of-way easement over Cliffs Resources with their road option. The Commission delivered the astounding judgment that the "public interest" was not being addressed.
How could governments move forward without the public interest front and centre?
Tom Mulcair and New Democrats understand that we must address crucial Aboriginal, environment and resource revenue issues to ensure we serve the public good. This is about the future of Northern Ontario. We have to get it right.
New Democrats will cheer the Ring of Fire and its job creation when we talk about sustainable investment -- ensuring Canadians can benefit from their resources while striking the right balance for the environment. We will look for value-added alternatives that would stimulate the smelter and refining capacities here at home.
Shortcuts around First Nations or the environment may appeal to impatient governments and companies wanting quick project approvals. However, these shortcuts end up making the process longer and costlier, triggering court challenges, local protests and more. We would go further and faster with real partnerships.
This Ring of Fire series has highlighted the enormous social and economic challenges facing a dozen or so First Nations communities nearby.
New Democrats believe we must engage with First Nations on a "nation-to-nation" level. Everything we do including at the cabinet table has to respect First Nations' inherent rights, their treaty rights and Canada's international obligations with regard to aboriginal rights.
This fair sharing of revenues with First Nations is an issue of sustainability. The provinces have the lead here. There are good initiatives to draw from, like the Paix des Braves agreement between the Quebec Government and the Grand Council of the Crees.
On the environment side, Stephen Harper has failed as well, gutting sustainable development and fisheries legislation in Canada. That means Canada no longer has a credible, thorough environmental assessment that, for example, northerners could look at and say we can proceed safely. Conservative changes have forced artificial timelines on project reviews, dramatically slashed the number of environmental assessments, and placed arbitrary limits on who can intervene in the consultation. This severely curtailed process shuts out community voices and fails to fulfill the Crown's obligation to consult and accommodate Aboriginal and treaty rights in the course of reviewing development proposals.
Full and meaningful community consultation is not only the right thing to do but benefits industry as well as communities, supporting local buy-in for projects, and allowing local knowledge to be incorporated into project development processes.
Under the Conservatives there have been no clear rules. This hurts everyone.
It is for this reason that New Democrats will keep fighting to ensure that development projects are sustainable, make economic sense, and that the approval process is fair, open and transparent -- so Canadians can draw maximum benefit from our resources and ensure a minimum impact on the environment.