11/25/2013 04:32 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 05:59 EST

Harper's Ring of Fire Comments Took Ontario By 'Surprise'

Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a business round table in Lima, Peru on Wednesday, May 22, 2013. Following Peru Harper will travel to Cali, Columbia for the Pacific Alliance summit. (AP Photo\THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

Ontario says it was taken by surprise when it heard Prime Minister Stephen Harper dismiss the development in the Ring of Fire region as Ontario's problem, given that repeated calls by the province for the federal government to play a role in the project have gone unanswered in recent weeks.

In a telephone interview with CBC News on Monday, Ontario's Minister of Northern Development and Mines Michael Gravelle said Harper's comments came "as a surprise." 

"To simply be somewhat dismissive and say it's a matter of provincial issue or provincial jurisdiction, certainly took me a little bit aback," Gravelle said.

The prime minister was asked, during a news conference in Winnipeg on Friday, what role the federal government had in getting the development in the Ring of Fire back on track after a major U.S. mining company suspended its operations in the area a day earlier.

Harper said "this is a project that is primarily under provincial jurisdiction because ultimately resources belong to the provinces and resource development is a provincial responsibility."

"Obviously we have been talking to Ontario over the last few years in terms of regulatory approval processes, in terms of infrastructure investments and in terms of making sure that First Nations continue to benefit," Harper told reporters gathered in Winnipeg on Friday.

"But ultimately as I say, the jurisdiction here is primarily provincial, and ultimately it is private companies themselves that have to make commercial decisions on the viability of projects," Harper said.

Ontario 'disappointed'

The Ontario minister told CBC News it was those comments that "motivated" him to write a letter to Greg Rickford, the minister responsible for the federal economic development initiative for northern Ontario, calling on him to meet one-on-one to discuss the matter.

"If these were the initial comments, if that was a signal they were sending, it's now even more important that we find a way to get together," Gravelle told CBC News.

In his letter to Rickford, Gravelle said "I am disappointed to see that your government is now dismissing the development in the Ring of Fire as a provincial issue."

"Development of this scale is not about jurisdictional boundaries or placing blame — the Ring of Fire development is about much more."

"That is why we continue to urge your government to be a committed partner for investment and collaboration in the development corporation," Gravelle said.

The Ontario minister also noted in his correspondence with Rickford that federal investment in the project would be "a meaningful way" for the federal government to meet its obligation to First Nations.

Ontario's call for the federal government to step forward as a partner in the development of the Ring of Fire has gone "unanswered," Gravelle said, despite numerous requests from Ontario for federal engagement in the project.

Wynne – Harper meeting

Wynne is expected to be in Ottawa next week but it's not yet clear whether she will get the meeting she requested with the prime minister to discuss this and other issues.

A spokesperson in the Prime Minister's Office told CBC News on Monday afternoon that a reply will come "in due course."

Wynne wrote to Harper on Nov. 8, the day Ontario announced the creation of a new development corporation that would bring together First Nations, mining companies, private and public partners, and both levels of government, to facilitate development of infrastructure into the Ring of Fire.

"We expect your government to come to the table with matching funds," Wynne wrote to Harper in no uncertain terms.

The Ontario government has estimated the total capital investment for infrastructure in the range of $800 million to $1 billion, with the estimated costs of connecting the Ring of Fire communities to all-season access roads at $1.25 billion.

Gravelle told CBC News there has indeed been "no formal reply" from Harper to date, nor has there been a formal reply from Rickford to a letter the Ontario minister sent him around the same time. 

While Rickford was not immediately available for an interview with CBC News, Gravelle said the federal minister has now indicated, after receiving his letter, that he will meet with him.

"Rickford's office and mine are working on getting a time together," Gravelle said.

In an interview with CBC News on Thursday, following the decision by Cliffs Natural Resources to suspend its operations, Rickford expressed concern for what he called the "legacy project" for the remote area.

Rickford said "We're very disappointed by this and we take it very seriously," he said.

"Not only does this represent a legacy project for Ontario, but the world, including investors, have their eyes on us and we want to get this right."

The Ring of Fire is a mineral-rich region 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay in northern Ontario, worth up to $60 billion, but the remoteness of the area poses obvious challenges to its development.

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