03/01/2015 03:22 EST | Updated 05/01/2015 05:59 EDT

Federal, Ontario Governments To Spend More Than $785,000 On Ring Of Fire Study

Sunny Freeman

TORONTO - Some of Canada's most remote and impoverished First Nations communities isolated within northern Ontario's so called Ring of Fire region are getting funding to conduct a study on how to open the area to development.

However at least one critic suggested the study, which is to look at establishing a year-round transportation corridor in part to allow mining operations, would be redundant.

The study will be led by the Webequie First Nation in partnership with the First Nations of Eabametoong, Neskantaga and Nibinamik, with the federal and Ontario governments each contributing $393,814.

Various stakeholders have been discussing for years how to connect the region. It has been widely agreed that economic development of the Ring of Fire would be very limited without some way to connect it to the rest of the world.

"We've always struggled to connect with the mainstream society, and I think as we move forward we will eventually connect with the real world and then hopefully we see the benefits that we always strive for," said Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse, adding that the remote community is only accessible by air in the summertime and by road in the winter months.

Nibinamik First Nations Chief Johnny Yellowhead said he was apprehensive of working with the provincial government at first but is pleased with the results.

"I was told when we started approaching Ontario -- you'll never get Ontario to listen to you," he said. "But I'm glad they're here, even the federal minister. We're making progress as we go and I'm very grateful to see that."

Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford and Ontario Northern Development Minister Michael Gravelle made the announcement at a mining conference in Toronto on Sunday.

"What does that mean for this region?" Rickford said. "It means that communities will have the opportunity to work collaboratively to assess, plan and develop a shared transportation solution that will open the door for future development in northwestern Ontario."

Rickford said the project will position the region to capitalize on projects such as the Ring of Fire, but its main goal is to open up the region and meet the immediate and long term needs of local communities in the region.

New Democrat MP Claude Gravelle questioned spending money on a study, saying the investment should be focused directly on infrastructure in the region, because a similar study has already been done.

"This is the same announcement that was made in 1999 by the then-Liberal government to have a study on the permanent roads. There was even maps produced after the study indicating where the roads were going to go," he said.

"What we need right now is to get the work done. There's already been a study so why not use that study? The roads are going to go in the same place, so let's spend that $780,000 on infrastructure."

The remote region to the west of James Bay holds one of the world's richest chromite deposits, discovered in 2007, along with nickel, copper and platinum _ deposits Rickford estimated at between $30 to $50 billion.

Yet the region lacks both an electrical grid and a transportation corridor and faces daunting public infrastructure costs estimated well in excess of $1 billion.

An all-season road would connect these communities with the rest of the country, year-round, enabling the building of hydro lines and possibly the eventual development of the chromite deposits and other minerals.

"We recognize that obviously energy is a big piece of it," Michael Gravelle said. "If we are at the stage where we end up with an all season road obviously that opens up opportunities in terms of energy needs being met."

Rickford would not give a specific timeline as to when the study would be completed but said of the energy deficit that the corridor "ought to reflect the potential for some of the other challenges in developing our vast region."

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