Thursday, May 23, 2019

Ring of Fire Bungling Jeopardizes Green Economic Prosperity for Northern Communities

Buried beneath the feet of Northern Ontarians are the materials that will drive the green economy. Nickel, copper, cobalt and lithium are needed in abundance for batteries that will store electric energy (see: "Enabling Clean Energy Applications, Information Bulletin,” Natural Resources Canada, March 2017).  The world is already shifting from greenhouse gas-emitting fossil energy sources like coal, oil and natural gas in an effort to minimize the very worst effects of climate change.  Northern Ontario, with our abundant mineral resources, is strategically positioned to be a global leader in the clean economy.  

Leadership requires commitment – and that’s always been a problem for Northern Ontario, a vast but sparsely populated region that is far too often treated as a resource colony by governments and investors located in southern Ontario (see: "N. Ontario little more than a 'colony' – report,” the Sudbury Star, April 27 2016). Our region’s mineral wealth is far too often seen as resources ripe for exploitation, rather than as the building blocks for our own prosperity.

Earlier this month, Northerners were excited to hear that Noront Resources had selected Sault Ste. Marie as a home for its ferrochrome smelter to process chromite extracted from the Ring of Fire in northwestern Ontario. It sounds like progress, but the truth is the Ring of Fire, a $60 billion project, remains stalled – and likely will be for some time as Ontario’s new government is walking away from engagement with the indigenous people who live in the region (see: "Basic Facts About the Ring of Fire Including FNs Traditional Territories – by Stan Sudol,” Republic of Mining, November 30 2018).

The Ring of Fire is located in the traditional territory of the nine Matawa First Nations.  In 2014, the Matawa tribal council and the province entered into a regional framework agreement that set out the parameters for discussions related to development.  But any goodwill stemming from these negotiations evaporated quickly.  Last year, Eabametoong First Nation Chief Elizabeth Atlookan accused the government of playing a game of “divide and conquer” by moving forward with projects, like road construction, in a piecemeal fashion, absent consultation with all Matawa nations (see: "Ontario playing favourites with First Nations on Ring of Fire, say chiefs,” CBC News, November 23, 2018).

The desire to compartmentalize development of the Ring of Fire and other resource extraction projects in the remote north has long been a sore point for indigenous communities and environmentalists.  Rather than planning for development in a comprehensive manner which assesses all impacts on the natural and social environments, the province has pushed a piecemeal approach that evaluates components of development independently from one another (see: "Ring of Fire (Northern Ontario),” Wikipedia).  It’s a 20th century colonial approach that no longer works in an era of ‘free, prior and informed consent’ as mandated by United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

And now Ontario’s new provincial government seems intent on exacerbating the gridlock by repealing the Far North Act. Although First Nations communities have viewed the Far North Act as an imperfect vehicle for making local decisions, it is the only legislative framework in place to guide development in the region. The Far North Act’s repeal will leave indigenous communities even further out of the decision-making loop (see: "Ring of Fire development to be 'slow, contested' if Far North Act replacement stands as-is, legal expert says,” CBC News, April 17 2019). 

With indigenous lands often treated as a resource colony ripe for exploitation by government and industry, First Nation communities know that their own future prosperity is put at risk by government decisions that exclude them from decision making.  Without a firm commitment of true government-to-government negotiations, the only recourse for First Nations will be to pursue their rights through the judicial system – a process that could delay development for decades. 

Significant time has already been lost due to the intransigence of governments in Toronto and Ottawa to work with the people who live in the region and by failing to comprehensively plan for development in Ontario’s remote north.  With the world knocking at our door, clamouring for the materials needed for the green economy, all of the North’s communities – indigenous and settler – are at risk of losing out on the opportunity of being a world leader.

Originally published online and in print as, "May: Ring of Fire bungling jeopardizes Green prosperity for North," at the Sudbury Star, Saturday May 18, 2019 - without hyperlinks.

****UPDATE - June 19 2019****

Well, publication of this piece in the Sudbury Star generated some feedback from members of the public.  It started with a letter to the Editor from a man named Peter Best (see: "Green Party policies naive, harmful to Sudbury," the Sudbury Star, May 25 2019), who described my column as "utopian" in that I sought an "overnight" transition to a zero-carbon economy.  Best was also incensed that I described the location of the Ring of Fire as being in the "traditional territory" [of Matawa First Nations] rather than describing the area as "Crown Land". And finally, Best took issue with me and Green Party having campaigned against a smelter in Coniston. 

Not at His Best

Peter Best isn't just some local yahoo - he's a known and respected lawyer who lives and works in my community.  And that's what makes Best's criticisms even more problematic, as some are simply not based on the sort of factual evidence that one would expect a respected lawyer to use when laying out a case.

First of all, let me back up a little bit here.  Although I write a column for the Sudbury Star, and although I maintain this blog - neither my column nor this blog are sanctioned by the Green Party of Canada, the Green Party of Ontario or any of its affiliates (like a local constituency association).  And although I am an officer in several local Green associations, as per the Constitutions of those associations, in my role as officer, I am not sanctioned to speak on behalf of those associations.  What I write here and for the Star is nothing more than my own opinion.  The references to the Green Party that appear in the Sudbury Star and in my own blog are to disclose my connections to the Party for those reading.  This is done in the interests of transparency.  

That said, I understand that it may be confusing to readers like Best, who assume that the opinions I express in my Sudbury Star columns are somehow aligned with those of the Green Party.  So with that in mind, I can expect that there may be from time to time some confusion around that relationship - like that experienced by Mr. Best.

That said, though, Best ended up taking matters into a counter-factual fantasy land when he stated that "Residents of Sudbury were dismayed, largely because Mr. May’s Green Party successfully campaigned against it [Noront's proposed ferrochrome smelter] being located here."  The fact is that neither the Green Party of Canada, the Green Party of Ontario, or any unit of the Party participated in any campaign against the smelter. Best is simply making this up.  I understand that some members of the Green Party - and members of other political parties - may have been a part of a grassroots initiative that came together to oppose the location of the smelter - but to suggest that this was somehow a Green Party initiative is simply not true.  

In a response to this part of Best's letter, Pat Rogerson - who ran for the Green Party of Ontario in the Sudbury riding in 2011, and who remains involved with the Green Party today - set the record straight (see: "Coniston didn’t want smelter, either," the Sudbury Star, June 6 2019). I know Pat very well - and I know that she could have written a lot more about the grassroots initiative the sprang up quickly after the proposed location for the smelter was announced by the City in absence of any public consultation with the local community - a smelter which, by the way, I described in my column as one Northerners were "excited" about - and which she refers to as a "disaster for the Ontario government."

But Best's real issues don't appear to be with the Green Party so much as they are with where my own personal opinion is at with regards to indigenous issues.  Tellingly, Best took exception to my reference to 'free, prior and informed consent" as per UNDRIP, which Best quite rightly pointed out is not the law of the land (something that I never actually claimed).  Best appears to consider himself a bit of an expert on this subject matter, though, having written a book entitled, "There is No Difference," which is dismissive of what he refers to as a "Nation-to-Nation fantasy" that some people (elites) believe exists when it comes to treaties signed between Canada and indigenous peoples (see: "Sudbury author wades into controversial territory," the Sudbury Star, November 7 2018).  The Star reports that his book has been endorsed by Barbara Kay and Tom Flanagan. Clearly, Best and I are not on the same page with regards to indigenous issues.

And I'm not the only one to find himself at odds with Best here.  

Writing in response to the Sudbury Star column guest column by Best about the Justice Hennessy's Restoule Decision (see: "Sudbury Accent: Decision further erodes Crown sovereignty," the Sudbury Star, February 2 2019), former Chief Justice of the Ontario Superior Court Stephen O'Neill wrote:

"Reconciliation will almost invariably involve a rigorous debate between the guardians of the status quo, who see treaties between Indigenous peoples and the Crown as being one-time historic transactions, destined to condemn First Nation peoples to a lifetime of poverty, and those who are seeking fundamental change through the application of judicially mandated treaty interpretation principles required to realize the true meaning and legal effect of these treaties.  I would put Peter Best — based on his comments regarding Restoule v. Canada and Ontarioin his guest column dated Feb. 2 — in the former category." (see: "Treaties provide means to peacefully share wealth," the Sudbury Star, February 18 2019).

Now look, I'm not a lawyer, and I don't profess to understand the nuances of decisions like Restoule.  But I have been paying a little attention to court cases brought forward by indigenous peoples over the past couple of decades.  And with regards to former Chief Justice O'Neill's "two groups" I think that the trend regarding the rule of law in our civil society here would be to bet against the opinion of the "status quo" supporters.  But I'm not a lawyer like Mr. Best is.  That's for sure.

Don't Touch the Ring

And finally, this column provoked what I many considered an unusual response - in that it was written by a man who calls Faro, Yukon his home - a location significantly removed from Sudbury spatially - but perhaps really just virtually next door thanks to the internet.  The thesis of this letter writer was to take both myself and Mr. Best to task for our apparent support of developing mining activities in the Ring of Fire (see: "Ring of Fire should not proceed," the Sudbury Star, June 13 2019).  

For me, this actually was the more interesting letter - because I'm not particularly used to coming under friendly fire for my columns or blogs.  And in this case, that's exactly what happened.  Although he now calls Faro, Yukon his home - the author of this letter has long been engaged in Ontario politics. Frank de Jong was, in fact, the former Leader of the Green Party of Ontario.  I don't think many reading Frank's letter appreciated that - but I sure did.

Frank's thesis appears to be that the environmental risks to developing the Ring of Fire are not worth the price of the investment in making it happen.  Frank is right that the area in which the Ring of Fire is located is particularly environmentally sensitive - and the costs of bringing development to the region for what Frank refers to as "temporary jobs" will be enormous.  

And while I have always been concerned that development of the Ring - as well as any ancillary development, such as ferrochrome processing and even maybe a whole new stainless steel industry - would need to take place with the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples who live in the region, and in an environmentally sustainable context - I continue to believe that the resources found in the Ring of Fire are going to be ones that Ontario and Canada will need to help create a prosperous, low carbon future.

I get that it might come as a shock to some to discover that members of the Green Party support mining (when it's done right) - but the reality is that there are resources that we need to extract - and once extracted, become better stewards of.  The idea that Greens have a knee-jerk negative reaction to mining isn't in keeping with reality - although on a personal level, I would be remiss to suggest that all Greens feel that way that I do about mining - and let's face it, the historic practices of the mining industry in Canada - and ongoing practices of miners elsewhere in the world have created a circumstance where the mining industry really hasn't endeared itself to Green support.  That said, though, it would be foolish to think that we can prosper without new resources being extracted.

And with specific regard to the Ring of Fire, I feel compelled to remind former Green Party of Ontario Leader Frank de Jong just what, exactly, the Ring means to Ontarians: mineral wealth beneath the ground is estimated to be valued at between $30 and $60 billion - and that's just what we know about now.  That translates into thousands of well-paying jobs, many of which will be located in Northern Ontario - an area that is, shall we say, perhaps a little less economically well-off than other parts of the nation - due to a lack of historic investment on the part of federal and provincial governments that have had a long history of treating the region as resource colony.

But I digress.  De Jong is rightly concerned that the Ring of Fire could become Northern Ontario's tar sands. And if development doesn't occur properly, there might be a little something to that.  Luckily, there is a prescription out there - one that Frank might be a little surprised to discover - a prescription that if followed, would likely avoid the development scenario Frank fears.  

Frank might be surprised to discover that if he is still a member of the Green Party of Canada, he actually belongs to the only federal political party that has adopted a policy that specifically pertains to responsibly developing the Ring of Fire.  Frank's call for not developing the Ring would be, of course, offside with Green Party adopted policy.  But everyone can certainly have their own opinions about these things, right?

(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the Green Parties of Ontario and/or Canada)

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