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American mining company to carve 350 km private road through pristine Boreal wilderness

by Anna Baggio, Director Conservation Land Use Planning, CPAWS Wildlands League

Not since the jailing of the KI 6, have I seen Ontario get it so wrong. Last week, Ontario announced it had reached an “initial agreement” with an American coal and iron mining giant called Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. to mine chromite (used to make stainless steel) in the Ring of Fire. The two parties separately announced the results of their behind closed doors business deal. Most of the media coverage that followed focused on the selection of Sudbury for the smelter, which was portrayed as Ontario’s prize. What didn’t get nearly enough attention was how much was this going to cost us. Very little attention, for example, was paid to the subsidy that Cliffs secured on power rates for the smelter which could be upwards of $100 million per year (Cliffs should be thanking us for subsidizing their operations, by the way). The commitment to use taxpayers’ money to build a $600 million private, all-weather, north-south road was also largely buried.

Photo of Cliffs mining camp, considered part of "Early Exploration", courtesy of John Cutfeet, Wildlands League.

Ontario stated, “Discussions will also begin on the proposed development of a new all-season road to run south from the Ring of Fire through northwestern Ontario”.  And as reported in the Toronto Star: “Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said the Ontario government has reached a term sheet or initial agreement with Cliffs regarding the $3.3 billion deal. ‘We will be investing in parts of that as well, part of that will include a road,’ Duncan told reporters. ‘It is significant …It is the first step to finalizing a deal.’”

To access the Ring of Fire, Cliffs plans to carve a 350 km private road through pristine Boreal wilderness and the homelands of First Nations.

Cliffs CEO, Joseph Carrabba, told a northern paper he makes no apologies for his business decision. Mr. Carrabba said, “Getting the north-south road built will make a monumental difference in people’s livelihoods and their overall quality of life…I know there is disappointment, but I make no apologies for this decision. Business decisions have to be made for the benefit of all to get a project like this up and running, but at the same time, we will work with all parties to come to a resolution.”

Well we disagree, Mr. Carrabba. You owe us an apology. When First Nations, the public, scientists and municipalities are all excluded, we call that a bad business decision. And when a company demands that we have to pay for a 350 km private, all-season road but we don't get to have a say in that road, we call that being disrespectful.

Several First Nations were obviously upset by the announcement. Chief Peter Moonias of Neskantaga First Nation told CBC News, "They're going to have to cross that river [Attawapiskat], and I told them if they want to cross that river, they're going to have to kill me first. That's how strongly I feel about my people's rights here."
It’s not like Ontario was unaware of the stakes. Both Cliffs and Ontario knew the First Nations wanted to be included. The First Nations said so repeatedly, and again in their application last November to the Federal Court for a review of the decision by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency regarding the “track”  of the environmental assessment of the Cliffs Chromite Project.

Moreover, Ontario was advised over 2 years ago by scientists of the risks of poorly planned access routes and transmission lines, especially in the context of the Ring of Fire. The Far North Science Advisory Panel warned (see page 99 of the report), 

poorly planned access routes and transmission lines in particular have the potential to fragment habitat and create irreversible impacts on terrestrial and aquatic systems, including species abundance and distribution, carbon storage, and contamination of wild foods…

The Panel recommends that the Ring of Fire be immediately recognized as a Priority Management Area where a coordinated, government-wide sub regional land use strategy should be developed as soon as possible. The interim planning process would bring together all affected First Nations communities…

Had Ontario heeded the advice from the science panel and First Nations, we’d be so much further ahead by now and in a better position to make some defensible decisions. We’d have already started to figure out the costs and benefits of roads and other infrastructure. We would have heard from First Nations about what their priorities are and how accessing the Ring of Fire deposits could be designed in such a way to meet their long term needs too. We’d have already figured out the least harmful environmental route for the road and the most cost effective option. And we could have already started to think about the cumulative effects of all the proposed projects and what the future of this globally significant ecosystem could look like.

It’s telling that for years, the Premier and various Ministers promised that they were going to ‘get it right’ in the Ring of Fire but when forced into a bare knuckled negotiation with Cliffs, getting it right boiled down to getting a smelter.

Ontario should take no further steps to support this project until a full discussion has been held with northern First Nations towards a proper EA and regional decision-making forum. It’s time for public hearings and a strategic regional environmental assessment.