Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is pledging to work closely with the federal government on its controversial overhaul of environmental assessments as he calls on Ottawa to play an active role in exploiting the untapped potential of the Ring of Fire.
Mr. McGuinty is counting on mining exploration in the northern wilderness to lead to a new generation of prosperity for Ontario. Emerging economies in India and China have an "insatiable hunger" for the province's resource riches, he said on Friday in urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper to help him open up the North.
"Failure is not an option," Mr. McGuinty told reporters. "Success is mandatory."
The mining exploration area in the James Bay Lowlands of Northern Ontario is one of the most significant mineral regions in the province, and includes the largest deposit of chromite ever discovered in North America.
Exploiting the Ring of Fire is in the national interest, Mr. McGuinty said in a letter to Mr. Harper, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail. The vast tract of land about 540 kilometres north of Thunder Bay represents a strategic economic opportunity for Canada and has the potential to rival Alberta's oil sands, the letter says.
Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver pledged on Friday to work with the province to "unlock" billions of dollars in economic activity and create jobs in Northern Ontario with the help of his government's proposed streamlined approach to environmental reviews.
"Mining and forestry have been the bedrocks of the Northern Ontario economy for more than a century," Mr. Oliver said in an e-mail response to The Globe. "Our government recognizes the importance of the mining industry and the significant role it plays in providing good jobs for Canadians."
Mr. McGuinty is calling on Ottawa to invest in first nations communities in the Ring of Fire area to develop a healthy and skilled work force that can participate in mining projects. But those communities are already pushing back against mining exploration on their traditional lands, a move critics say trumps resistance from environmentalists to a federal omnibus budget changing the way Ottawa and the provinces review major resource projects.
The federal government has allocated new money to increase consultations with first nations on resource development projects, as native communities demand greater participation in project benefits. Ottawa's pledge for more dialogue is a tacit acknowledgment that, notwithstanding environmentalists' concerns, the first nations' opposition represents a far more serious hurdle to projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline that will deliver oil sands bitumen to the B.C. coast for shipment to Asia.
On the Ring of Fire, several hurdles remain before the region can become home to North America's first large-scale chromite mining operation, a key ingredient used to create stainless steel. The project is subject to environmental and regulatory approvals and consultation with first nations communities.
First nations leaders complain that there has been little consultation, despite promises by the McGuinty government to work with them. They point to the fact that the province bypassed them when it signed a framework agreement earlier this month with U.S.-based Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. for a $3.3-billion investment, including a $1.8-million smelting plant in the Sudbury area.
The leaders want legislation that would include revenue-sharing agreements for their communities as well as jobs, said Stan Beardy, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Northern Ontario.
"We are not outright opposed to resource development, but we know it is going to be at the expense of our homeland," he said in an interview. "It's going to disrupt our way of life for a long time into the future."