Ring of Fire: Growing Concerns About Violations of Aboriginal Rights, Environmental Damage

Jamie Kneen Communications and Outreach Coordinator responsible for: strategic research, social media, and public engagement; our Africa program, environmental assessment, and uranium mining.

In the last two years, the number of active mining claims has more than doubled in Ontario’s Far North in an area in the James Bay lowlands about the size of Prince Edward Island. Known as the “Ring of Fire”, it is the homeland for several Cree and Ojibway communities and sits at the edge of one of the world’s largest fresh water wetlands. The Attawapiskat and Albany Rivers flow west from the area past the Cree communities of Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Kashechewan on their way to James Bay. Ecologically the area is of concern for its role storing vast amounts of carbon and providing habitat to caribou and migratory birds. It also sustains the rich aquatic and marine systems of the lowlands and James Bay. Companies are interested in nickel, copper, zinc, gold and diamonds in the region but it is one of the world’s largest deposits of chromite (used in stainless steel) that is drawing much of the attention.

Though it can be hard to separate industry hype from reality, there is talk of developments on the scale of Sudbury, Ontario. Sudbury is one of Canada’s largest, oldest and most ecologically damaged mining regions, where Whitefish Lake First Nation is suing over the loss and exploitation of resources from their treatied lands and where studies are ongoing to find ways to heal the denuded landscape and poisoned waterways. What lessons from the past will be applied to the Ring of Fire? Unfortunately we don’t seem to be off to a good start.

Even at this relatively early stage, there is cause for concern regarding: inadequate waste management, garbage disposal and fuel spills in several mineral exploration camps; inappropriate and possibly illegal use of mining claims to map out two competing railway routes; and increased danger for species at risk like woodland caribou and wolverine that need large intact areas of boreal forest to survive. Webequie and Marten Falls First Nations have had to resort to blockades of airstrips and the media to get attention to their concerns. In his January 2010 throne speech Premier McGuinty highlighted the opportunities in the region, but the following budget provided only enough funding to hire one regional coordinator.

Before any actual extraction of minerals can occur from the area, massive infrastructure development is needed to connect to year-round ground transportation and likely the electrical grid. As mentioned above, planning for a rail corridor has already begun. The mining company, KWG, has locked down two corridors using mining claims, but engaged in no consultation with the First Nations, public review, or environmental impact assessment. Work along one of the corridors led to the cutting of trees on a sacred burial site of the Marten Falls First Nation.

KWG has also shown an extreme lack of recognition of First Nations interests when speaking to the media. President Frank Smeenk was quoted on the Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal website saying he thought all the communities should give up their traditional territories and move to one centralised location in the Ring of Fire area so as to “bring all these First Nation communities into the First World”. While First Nations are serious about exploring the potential economic opportunities mineral development could provide, they are extremely frustrated by the continued lack of consideration of their rights and interests. Grand Chief Stan Beardy of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nation communities, summed up the situation by noting that government officials “can make any promises they want. But at the end of the day, there will be no resource development happening on our homelands without consent by First Nations.”

MiningWatch has been building relationships with First Nations communities in the area and with them, is planning capacity-building initiatives that will give leaders and community members the tools to deal with the onslaught of claims and help their communities define how to best to protect their interests. Our annual Ontario Mining Action Network meeting will be held in Thunder Bay in the fall of 2010 in order further build links and raise awareness about the situation in Ontario’s north. These initiatives are supported in part by an Ontario Trillium Fund grant to MiningWatch’s sister organization the Canary Research Centre.