Chief Bruce Achneepineskum’s community of Marten Falls is one of the closest First Nations to the proposed mining mega-development known as Ontario’s Ring of Fire.
That’s why he, like other First Nations leaders, wants a greater say in what happens across the 5,000-square-kilometre tract of Treaty 9 territory.
“This is Marten Falls ancestral land, and we’d like to take the lead on any government processes that happen on our lands, but I don’t know if this is going to be the case,” Achneepineskum said on Nation to Nation. “The government makes the law. They make the policy, and First Nations are merely, right now, pawns in that scheme.”
For more than a decade, mining firms have sought to unearth vast deposits of minerals that lie beneath the remote wetlands south of James Bay.
On March 17, Premier Doug Ford released Ontario’s new critical minerals strategy, a five-year plan to unleash a multi-billion-dollar economic windfall and position the province as a global mining power.
His minister of northern development touted the plan and encouraged federal parliamentarians to support it during testimony at the House industry committee on Tuesday.
“Leave us alone to move ahead with what we’re calling the corridor to prosperity,” Greg Rickford urged MPs. “We don’t build mines in Ontario as a government; we provide the right conditions for those to proceed.”
As part of that, Rickford said Ontario is “working on red-tape reduction” to get the mines going. He said the province faced “regulatory challenges” following “a bit of a hangover” from a decade-and-half of provincial Liberal rule.
“We’re not going to compromise the environmental standards, or any of the opportunities with our Indigenous communities as partners,” the minister testified. “But the collective effort, certainly in the context of our discussion today, we all have to be singing from same songbook.”
Achneepineskum said he’ll be watching to see how the strategy unfolds. Marten Falls and Webequie First Nation have proposed to build roads linking their fly-in communities with the Ring of Fire and the provincial highway network — projects that fall under provincial regulatory jurisdiction.
“It has to be open and transparent with the First Nations,” said Achneepineskum. “What we’re trying to get at is a more collaborative, inclusive approach with Marten Falls, Webequie and the other area First Nations.”
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Meanwhile, on top of those provincial assessments, a federal environmental assessment is happening under the Impact Assessment Act.
The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada recently released a draft framework to conduct the probe. It proposes to strike a five-member, federal-provincial joint committee that would not have representation from First Nations governments.
Five Treaty 9 chiefs immediately condemned the proposal as tokenistic and told federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault to shred it and start anew.
But Rickford told MPs he was pleased with parts of the proposal, notably how it would “ringfence” the impact assessment to only those areas subject to mining activity.
Marten Falls and Webequie are also pushing back slightly against “neighbouring communities and non-Indigenous organizations” when it comes to the regional assessment.
“Marten Falls and Webequie have been stewards of their traditional territories since time immemorial and have no reason to give up that responsibility today or in the future,” they said in a March 17 joint statement. “They intend to lead all activities in their traditional territory, without exceptions.”
Achneepineskum told N2N he understands why neighbouring communities, like Attawapiskat and Kashechewan, are concerned.
The chiefs of those two Cree communities previously told N2N they were concerned about possible downstream impacts. The Ring of Fire straddles the Attawapiskat River, which flows toward their communities where it empties into James Bay.
Achneepineskum said their concerns are valid because every First Nation’s treaty and Aboriginal rights are at stake, but he wants the communities at the centre of the proposed development to take the lead.
“In our communities, there’s widespread poverty, and we want to alleviate that poverty,” Achneepineskum added. “We want to build a new relationship with government based on our treaty, and that’s the route we want to go.”