Can the Ring of Fire keep its promises to First Nations?

By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 11, 2015
The Ring of Fire could be worth millions but will it mean for First Nations in northwestern Ontario?

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Neskantaga First Nation has been under a boil water advisory for the past 20 years.  Like most reserves in Ontario’s northwest, electricity comes from noisy and polluting diesel generators. The community is connected to the rest of the world only part of the year by a winter road that stops being useful the moment the ice starts to thin in spring. When the winter’s shipment of diesel fuel runs out, it has to be flown in on float planes at enormous expense.

In short, Neskantaga and other First Nation reserves in Ontario’s vast northwest have to live in conditions that nearly everyone in Ontario would find unacceptable. The nearby Ring of Fire mineral deposit, potentially worth $50 billion, is supposed to help change that.

“Unless we really open up the north and provide access to remote First Nation communities, we’ve really missed the boat,” says Ontario’s Minister of Northern Development and Mines Mike Gravelle.

A lot of debate around the Ring of Fire revolves around what kind of transportation links to build to get the rich minerals found there to global markets. However, more basic forms of infrastructure are also planned, such as reliable electricity.

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Limited electrical power isn’t just expensive: it limits all economic options on First Nations reserves, and exacerbates the existing housing shortage. The limited capacity of the existing diesel generators prevents some reserves from allowing new homes to be built.

Wataynikaneyap Power (or “Watay Power” for short) is a coalition of 20 First Nations looking to connect most of the currently diesel-powered reserves to Ontario’s electrical grid. They’ve already completed the environmental approvals for Phase One of the project, which will upgrade an existing transmission line to Pickle Lake – a necessary first step for expanding the power grid. They hope the upgrade will be done by 2018, with the first remote connections completed by 2019.

The transmission lines Watay Power will require may also open up the possibility of new roads, though Margaret Kenequanash, chair of Watay Power, is focused primarily on the fundamentals of electricity transmission. “We’re trying not to complicate things – this is complicated enough as it is.”

The agency responsible for planning the province’s transmission grid, the IESO, declared in 2014 that the cost savings from phasing out the current system of diesel generators are enough on their own to justify connecting most of northwest Ontario’s remote reserves. The development of the Ring of Fire, however, would create more demand for electricity in the area, which means the plan would break even for the provincial and federal governments even sooner.

The investment dollars brought by the Ring of Fire could be the impetus for other infrastructure and economic development as well. There is some modest potential for new hydroelectric dams in the northwest, albeit nothing on the scale of the James Bay projects in Quebec. The Ontario Waterpower Association estimates there’s more than 200 megawatts of economically viable electricity from rivers around the Ring of Fire.

Also, once the $50 billion wealth of the Ring of Fire is securely connected to global markets, there’s broader economic potential in northern Ontario, in what geologists call “greenstone belts” – deposits of rock where precious minerals, particularly gold, can be found. One such belt exists under Timmins and Kirkland Lake. Geologist James Franklin, using data from known deposits in Ontario and Manitoba, estimates the greenstone belts in the northwest may contain $150 billion to $190 billion.

Franklin emphasizes that those numbers are “highly speculative, but reasonable.” Further exploration would be needed to prove his back-of-the-envelope calculations.

So a mining boom in the northwest could bring cleaner electricity, new and better roads, and desperately needed jobs and money for First Nations and other residents of the northwest. But expectations need to be tempered by the reality of the mining industry in 2015.

While the Ring of Fire is often compared to the Sudbury mineral deposit, nobody expects the northwest to sprout a new city. Mines, smelters and refineries simply employ far fewer people to produce the same metals they did a century ago, or even 40 years ago. There are about as many people employed in all of Ontario's mining industry today as there were miners in Sudbury alone in the 1970s.

Regardless of the exact amount of economic potential, Kenequanash says broader development in the northwest won't happen without substantial, continuing consultation from mining companies and government over the fate of First Nations in the area.

“If you want to build a project and not bother talking to the First Nations," she says, "your project won’t go anywhere.” 

Graphic created by Michael Lehan

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