Overwhelmed, under-resourced and increasingly agitated

The vast 5,120-square-kilometre Ring of Fire in northern Ontario is seen by many as the solution to the province’s sagging economy. Discovered in 2006, the region encapsulates a massive deposit of chromite – a key and rare mineral used in the manufacturing of stainless steel.

But there’s one problem –communities like the Aroland, Constance Lake and Webequie First Nations live on this land.

Larry Innes says that the current situation is reminiscent of a mini-Klondike rush where hundreds of companies have staked over 30,000 claims, and that there’s no certainty how these deposits will be developed or who’s going to develop them

“It’s a very wild west scenario,” says Innes. “First Nations people are overwhelmed, under-resourced and increasingly agitated by the fact that all of this is happening without any definition of their role, or need to be in the driver’s seat, or at least next to it.”

As in British Columbia, these communities aren’t categorically against mining – they just want to be included and consulted. Many see development as their gateway to profitable jobs.

But Raymond Ferris says that this isn’t proving to be the case.

Ferris, Ring of Fire coordinator for Matawa First Nations says “mining companies bring in all their buddies – this is why we need an agreement so that this behaviour can be monitored.”

The long-running KI-Platinex dispute became a rallying point for the fact that Ontario’s century-old Mining Act did not address the need for mining and exploration companies to consult with First Nations before staking claims and beginning exploration work.

Referring to the Platinex case, natural resources researcher Michael Anderson says “it’s taken the widely publicised jailing of an entire First Nations council, massive protests and a decision by the Court of Appeal to finally move the government to reform its mining laws.

The 2009 Act amendments includes strict new requirements for exploration companies to consult with First Nation communities, as well as plans to limit conflicts between mineral exploration companies and private landholders who do not hold the mineral rights on their properties. There are also plans for a graduated permitting system, which would bar companies from accessing land and setting up shop. The new system would have interventions at crucial points so that First Nations communities can be consistently consulted.

But Innes says these reforms are being introduced too slowly. Protective measures for sites of cultural significance are only being introduced this spring, and the graduated permitting system won’t see the light of day until 2012.

“These changes contain the elements of a solution,” says Innes. “But we’re very much still operating under the old regime.”

Ferris says companies have come onto their land uninvited. He says money has been thrown at them for capacity-building, but that all the First Nations want is to be accommodated so that they can negotiate benefit agreements and conduct environmental assessments.

In May 2010, Constance Lake First Nation won a court injunction to temporarily stop the Zenyatta company from drilling further. The community has said that Zenyatta has not addressed their concerns about how exploration will affect their hunting, fishing, trapping and burial sites.

Innes says that things are getting better, but that’s only largely because the First Nations are becoming more savvy.

“They’ve gone through a few iterations of dealing with these mines and know where the pressure points are.” says Innes. “They’re exercising their political might, but there’s still a long ways to go.”