The Ring of Fire: Will Fingers Be Burnt? – by Michael Schwartz

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of the Ontario Prospector which is published by the Ontario Prospectors Association.

For an extensive list of articles on this mineral discovery, please go to: Ontario’s Ring of Fire Mineral Discovery

“There is no doubt that the Ring of Fire brings both enormous promise as well as enormous challenges for all. The enormity of the discoveries within the Ring of Fire could bring multi-generational community benefits if the regulatory roadmap is clear, if enabling mechanisms for community participation and partnership are created by government, and if industry brings their best practices forward.” – Mike Fox, Co-Chair of the PDAC Aboriginal Affairs Committee and President of Boreal Prospectors Association

On April 8, 2010, about 150 hungry people gathered at the Valhalla Inn in Thunder Bay to share a meal and explore opportunities at The Far North Feast. The venue was Thunder Bay, chosen because of its proximity to the Ring of Fire, a massive mineral deposit offering both benefits and challenges to exploration and mining companies, government at all levels, environmental agencies and, most crucially in the long-term, First Nations citizens in the vicinity.

Chairman of this year’s feast was Mike Fox, coincidentally both president of the Boreal Prospectors Association and co-chair of the Aboriginal Affairs Committee for the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC). He explains the purpose of the feast: “The overall intention is to highlight opportunities for progress and collaboration… Our aim is to show that the players are collaborating with the community, the province and its ministry, creating an enabling environment for others in the future.”

Recognising just how diverse and complex the situation is, the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry has  established a new position of Excutive Lead,  Ring of Fire Secretariat to develop the strategic vision and framework to facilitate the successful development of the Ring of Fire initiative and partner with other ministries to develop creative solutions that meet the interests of northern Ontarians, Aboriginal communities and the mining industry, while achieving government business objectives.

What Is the Ring of Fire?

The Ring of Fire lies under 5,120 square kilometres of wilderness centred on the James Bay Lowlands. At present, there are approximately 31,000 claim units. Its key asset for industrialists must surely be the massive chromite deposit, one of these being the Big Daddy. Chrome is vital when stainless steel is manufactured but for many years in North America it has only been produced by adding imported ferro-chrome. Such reliance on imports may soon change, as initial assessment of several chromite deposits in the James Bay Lowlands indicates abundant, high-quality chromium which will mean greater self-sufficiency for North American steel manufacturers.

Published resource calculations in January 2010, indicate 69,554,960 tonnes of 31.9% Cr2O3 in the Black Thor deposit and an additional amount in the Black Label (not published). The Big Daddy is defined as 39.5 million tonnes as inferred and indicated ore grading approximately 40% Cr2O3 in May 2010. This is “direct-shipping” ore, requiring little upgrading before transporting it to the steel mills (Middleton, page 8, This Issue). The other minerals discovered in the Ring of Fire include nickel, copper, platinum, gold and vanadium.

So far, however, mineral quality and quantity are the only secure factors. Any further developments must take the following into account: inter alia, financing, power generation at every stage of the operations, more than 300 km of road and/or rail transportation to the remote site, refining of the deposit, and consequent treatment and disposal of unwanted minerals.

Mike Fox summarises the challenges of the Ring of Fire: “There are three real problems—how to get power into the site, how to get the mineral out once excavated and community involvement.” No one problem can claim to be any easier than the other two.

The First Nations

First Nations are the people whose interests lie in the longest term. Their lives can be transformed beyond recognition if financial benefits pour into the Ring of Fire. Employment opportunities can be created as development progresses. In some cases, work may arrive in communities where the existing jobless figure is 100%.

It is accepted that exploitation of the Ring of Fire can only go ahead after consultation with the First Nations. The most prominent community in this case is Martin Falls, where unemployment is almost total, it is more than 400 km away from Thunder Bay let alone Ontario’s largest populations centres, water quality is unacceptable, and air transportation offers the only access.

Equally depressed is the 700-strong Webequie First Nation, 150 km further north of Martin Falls. Welfare dependency is severe enough among the First Nations, but coupled with a number of teenage suicides, the sense of desperation is tragically intensified.

Mike Fox, in his aboriginal affairs capacity, outlines the difficulties: “Upcoming is the planning stage. The far north regulations are in a state of uncertainty. Initiatives will need a planning regime but we don’t know what it will look like. It will need to be defined and then approved, notably in the matter of a regional infrastructure and First Nation involvement. (And) if one community does not want the railway…”

The First Nations responses have been varied. At its most immediate and striking, the two communities blocked their runways at the Ring of Fire exploration camps for two months. It must be stressed that Martin Falls Chief Elijah Moonias is not opposed to the mining per se; he is determined that his community benefits to the utmost. The questions remain as to whether the rewards for the First Nations will be as great as they would like.

Webequie First Nations Chief Cornelius Wabasse could not be contacted, but in the local Matawa Messenger, he declared, “Our First Nations were never against development. We just want to be a part of it. I now feel assured that we have sent a very powerful message to the government and the mining and mineral industry. If there is going to be any business on our lands, we are going to play an active role throughout the entire process.”

Mike Fox sets out a possible roadmap towards development that will engage all parties. “The foundational pieces to the collective success of the Ring of Fire will be First Nation early stage engagement, collective involvement, deep participation and long-term partnerships… The Ontario government needs to assist First Nations with geoscience within their land use planning’s Terms of Reference, particularly those First Nations affected by the visionary platforms associated with the Ring of Fire,” said Fox.

“The key to community acceptance of any development process will be the land-use planning tool that has to take into consideration development initiatives, and not just Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and Ministry of Natural Resource-led regional bioscience studies,” he added.

The Players and the Population

There are currently over 30 companies exploring in the Ring of Fire, including Cliffs Natural Resources, Freewest Resources, Spider Resources and Noront Resources. Noront states that it is the dominant land holder in the Ring of Fire and that it will continue to delineate and prove up its discoveries with appropriate technical and economic reports and a drill plan for the rest of 2010.

On June 16 this year, Noront signed an exploration agreement with the Webequie First Nation, an example of how commercial interests can work with local communities on traditional lands.

The agreement, inter alia, sets out protocols for exploration on these traditional lands and stresses Noront’s desire for a subsequent Impact Benefit Agreement. Noront is also seeking a similar MoU with the Martin Falls; the exploration agreement was signed back in April 2009.

Chief Wabasse is positive: “We are committed to this mutually beneficial partnership with Noront, who are attempting to be as inclusive as possible as they continue their exploration activities. Our agreement recognises that activities associated with mineral properties will be best achieved when Aboriginal and treaty rights are recognised, and the social, environmental and cultural well being of the First Nations are in balance with a company’s objective to conduct further work on their mineral properties.”

The Environment

“It is a given that environmental groups will oppose development, even if the proposed development can bring community employment, enterprise development and wealth creation for Ontario First Nations as a way to eliminate the poverty levels,” Said Fox, summing up a state of mind all too prevalent when mining is mentioned within earshot of environmental lobbies.

The First Nations desperately need additional sources of revenue to supplement their underfunded community programs and environmental groups should in fact be all too aware of the need for fundraising. Fox believes that the Ring of Fire potential can bring these new sources of revenue.

In his own words, “At the end of the day, it will be a balance between natural resource development and natural resource protection that will be determined by the First Nation communities affected by the Ring of Fire.”

In the meantime, there is the pessimistic Anna Baggio of the Wildlands League, a chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society: “Mining activities are superseding the protection of ecological and cultural values. There is very little government oversight, no environmental assessment process and no mechanism for First Nation control.”

And for good measure, Ontario Nature is not far behind, “… there has been an escalation in… the Ring of Fire… shattering once pristine habitat and home to species found in few other places in the world… the Ring of Fire threatens an environmental disaster that could be likened to a mini tar sands.”

Well, at least the other players can’t say they haven’t been warned.

Conclusions

The last words are Fox’s: “There is no doubt that the Ring of Fire brings both enormous promise as well as enormous challenges for all. The enormity of the discoveries within the Ring of Fire could bring multi-generational community benefits if the regulatory roadmap is clear, if enabling mechanisms for community participation and partnership are created by government, and if industry brings their best practices forward.”

The Ontario Prospectors Association (OPA) View

The Ontario Prospectors Association believes that exploration at the Ring of Fire will benefit its members greatly. Exploration and, hopefully, development projects of this magnitude do not occur unless there are prolific rocks. The presence of the mineralization discovered to date highlights the exploration potential of Ontario. World-class mineral potential host rocks continue to be proven in Ontario, be it in new discoveries in producing belts (Red Lake, Timmins or Sudbury) or in newly recognised belts such as Hemlo, the Nipigon plate or the Ring of Fire.

The fact that the Ring of Fire has attracted world attention allows prospectors to market their properties to a broader audience and therefore option more properties. And for the prosperity of the province, the more exploration being completed means the odds of deposits being located is increased. The increase in exploration in the North means that the smaller communities benefit from the economic spin-off and more employment is enjoyed by local manpower resources.

The Ontario prospectors welcome the additional explorers to Ontario and will continue to provide quality exploration properties for option.

Garry Clark
Executive Director
Ontario Prospectors Association

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