Premier Kathleen Wynne is warning fly-in First Nations in Northern Ontario they must quickly agree on the construction of a road into their region – one that would also serve mining interests in the so-called Ring of Fire – or she will negotiate unilaterally with those communities that want the project.
It has been three years since the Ontario government said it would spend up to $1-billion to create an all-season road that would make development possible in the massive cache of chromite and other minerals as it connects to some reserves that are not currently accessible by car.
But little progress has been made, in part because the First Nations do not agree among themselves on how to proceed and are concerned about losing jurisdictional rights in the process. Negotiations with provincial officials have not always been productive.
Last week, Ms. Wynne held a tense meeting at Queen's Park with chiefs of the nine Matawa First Nations, five of which are fly-in reserves, to tell them that her patience is running out and she cannot guarantee the money will stay on the table if decisions are not made quickly. It was conspicuously missing from the Ontario budget in April.
She also told the chiefs that, if they could not come to a consensus on the road's construction, she would work one-on-one with those communities that are prepared to move forward.
On Wednesday of this week, the Premier wrote to the chiefs to reiterate her position.
"My government announced $1-[billion] to support infrastructure into the Ring of Fire three years ago and if we are going to deliver on that we can delay no further," Ms. Wynne said in the letter, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail. "While I continue to hope progress can be made, I am prepared to continue to advance discussions with those First Nations that would like to pursue transportation infrastructure through our bilateral processes."
Development of the Ring of Fire, a 5,000-square-kilometre area about 540 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, is a crucial economic objective for Ms. Wynne's Liberal government, which is trying to create good news before an election in June, 2018. The region is estimated to hold $60-billion in mineral deposits – all base metals that require land transport to get them to market. Companies have jumped into the region and then jumped out again as the possibility of quick development faded and the construction of a road became more tenuous. The biggest player remaining is Noront Resources Ltd.
"Having all-season road access is of paramount importance," Noront's chief executive, Alan Coutts, said on Thursday. "Without having surety and certainty around the infrastructure and the timeline for development, it makes it nearly impossible for us to finance our works and projects."
The Matawa First Nations management, the administrative council for the communities, said the chiefs would not respond to Ms. Wynne's letter on Thursday.
They have said they want more study of the options, including who would own the road and set the rules for its use.
Some people in the fly-in communities are concerned that they would lose the extra social assistance payments they get for living in an isolated community if they get a year-round road. Some fear a road would increase crime and that development would lead to environmental degradation. And the chiefs want to ensure their communities would have a say in the mineral extraction process and a share in the revenues.
Consensus is also lacking around where the road should go. A study completed last year came to no conclusion.
One possible east-west route would link four of the fly-in First Nations but not the fifth. And that fifth, Marten Falls, is eager to be on a transportation corridor – so much so that Chief Bruce Achneepineskum is in China to hear about plan by a small mining company to build a rail line to the Ring of Fire through his community's traditional territory.
But the nine Matawa chiefs do agree that no road should be built into the Ring of Fire without their combined consent. And they are not happy with the Ontario government's threat to divide and conquer.
After the meeting last week, the chiefs wrote a letter to Ms. Wynne saying bilateral talks are not a real alternative to progress that can be made jointly. A "government-to-government relationship requires the provinces to commit to a collaborative, multi-ministerial and multi-community approach." they wrote.
Ms. Wynne's letter makes it clear, however, that she is keeping the bi-lateral option open. "We need to see meaningful progress in weeks, not months," she wrote.