Northeastern Ontario Chambers Joint Policy Statement About Far North Act-Bill 191

A joint statement by the Timmins Chamber of Commerce, Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce and North Bay & District Chamber of Commerce on the Far North Act – Bill 191.

The provincial government introduced the Bill 191 for First Reading on June 2, 2009. The Act passed Third Reading on Sept. 23, 2010 and received Royal Assent on Oct. 25, 2010. Its purpose is to permanently protect at least half of Ontario’s Far North for the “sustainable development of natural resources” as well the preservation of biological diversity and ecological processes.

The legislation puts forward a process for community-based land-use planning that will ultimately set aside at least 21% of the province’s total landmass, or half of the Far North’s 450,000 square kilometers, in an interconnected network of protected areas. The region reaches from the Manitoba border in the west to James Bay and Quebec in the east and north along a line several hundred kilometers north of Red Lake, Sioux Lookout, Hearst and Cochrane.

This area contains 24,000 people spread across 34 communities (31 of which are First Nations). It is also host to the socalled “Ring of Fire,” an area of potential significant mineral wealth that includes a world-class deposit of chromite,deposits of nickel and other base and precious metals. It is expected that $1.5 billion will be spent over the next 10 years to develop this area in advance of mineral extraction.

Under the Far North Act (FNA), the region’s First Nations are being encouraged to help develop community land use plans to assist in defining what development is possible and where. These plans will involve deciding which lands will be set aside for protection and which lands will remain open to resource development. All land use plans will be developed and completed within 10 to 15 years.

Following the passage of the FNA, certain types of development cannot take place before a community-based land-use plan is in place, unless the project was previously approved. Categories include industrial activities (the development of a mine), commercial timber harvesting; oil and gas exploration or production; the construction or expansion of an electrical generation, transmission and distribution systems; and all-weather transportation infrastructure. Ministerial exceptions could be made for projects surrounding the latter two items to proceed in advance of a community-based land-use plan.

At Issue

In the lead up to and subsequent passage of the FNA, various scientific and environmental groups hailed it as a bold step toward bridging the gap between responsible development and necessary environmental protection, and indeed it was. Ontario’s boreal forest is a unique asset of 50 million hectares, containing two-thirds of the province’s forests and 18 percent of our total freshwater sources. These figures alone demand that policy dictate responsible development and permanent protection. However, when we look beyond the publicity and political cover, there remain significant aspects unaddressed or avoided completely.

Regional stakeholders who identified weaknesses in the FNA — First Nations, northern Ontario municipalities, mining industry representatives, and Chambers of Commerce — identified implementation, predetermined protection targets,potential loss of future growth opportunities and investment uncertainty as the main items where detail is lacking.

For these reasons, we therefore believe it is incumbent upon the province to ensure the current process of strategic land-use development provides balanced, responsive and honest answers to the many questions surrounding the details of the Act’s implementation.

To achieve this, we collectively recommend that the provincial government immediately:

1. Reconsider the setting of an arbitrary, externally developed protection target (50%) and communicate instead how the land use planning process will identify areas within the Far North for protection.

The FNA, as worded, does not provide any specific means by which the 50% provincial target of protecting “at least” 225,000 square kilometers will be achieved within the land use planning process.

Specifically, there are no details as to what is the proportional burden of protection within the various First Nations communities with respect to their land use plans. In the absence of such an important detail, there can be no certainty that the process will move forward in a manner that is responsible and respectful to First Nations (and by extension, business).

While the government may seek to realize the 50% protection target, it must come to terms with the fact that such a goal can only be achieved on a local level (band and council). They must accept that some First Nations communities may earmark more land for protection, while an equal number will choose to focus on development. Simply put, the government must accept the unique needs of each community with respect to protection and development targets, and resist imposing a blanket of protection in the Far North.

2. Transfer FNA oversight and implementation from the Ministry of Natural Resources to the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry.

The government must ensure that this important policy tool is being applied appropriately and equally. Doing so will respect the intent of the document and allow for greater emphasis on the need to manage and review the relationships and agreements between business and First Nations.

To that end, the Ministry of Natural Resources’ (MNR) staffing and financial resources may be insufficient to adequately manage the FNA. Indeed, prior to the addition of 225,000 square kilometers of protected land, the Ministry of Natural Resources was already unable to meet the demands and interests of the public with respect to public lands.

If the MNR cannot meet its existing responsibilities, there remains significant doubt as to its ability to properly manage growth in these significantly expansive areas without allocation of new resources.

The aforementioned Chambers conclude that the transfer to the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and
Forestry (MNDMF) is more appropriate – despite the land use planning expertise of the MNR – because of two significant facts:

1. The Northern Growth Plan (NGP) – a enormously important, all-encompassing 25-year-long, economic, cultural and societal planning tool– is being handled by MNDMF;

2. The FNA supersedes the NGP and so will need to align with the outcomes of the FNA.

As such, these two plans should be put under the same ministry so as to avoid circumstances that generate gaps and hurdles.

3. Incorporate non-First Nations communities and businesses into the development of the Far North land use strategy.

The proposed creation of a provincial/First Nations joint body to help further develop far north policy through a land use strategy, as set out in the Act, is a positive step towards greater inclusion in the process. Nonetheless,this process must also consider the viewpoints and input of other communities and industries that stand to be affected by this legislation.

Many Northern Ontario cities are increasingly considered to be hubs and jumping-off points for natural resource development in the Far North. The promise held by the untold wealth of such resources in the Far North attracts considerable business interest to these hub communities, helping to lift not only their economies but also those First Nations areas where such activity is slated to occur. These municipalities and industries therefore have a significant vested interest in a more appropriate and equitable application of this Act.

As such, it is crucial that the province include northern Ontario businesses and communities on which the FNA has a direct and immediate impact. An inclusive joint body will ensure that we collectively adhere to the core aims of the FNA: namely, to develop policy that balances responsible development with necessary environmental protections.

4. Provide sufficient resources for the Far North Act to be implemented responsibly.

While it is well known that the Ontario government is struggling to reduce spending in light of a $16.3-billion deficit forecast for 2011-12, the passage of the Far North Act will require additional spending to ensure it is implemented in a way that responsibly meets the province’s newfound, self-imposed duties.

To that end, it is positive to note the provincial earmark of $10 million for land use planning funding and an additional $2 million annually for four years for related skills development training. It is equally positive to note that the legislation describes one of the functions of the joint body as “advising on the allocation of funding to support First Nations working with Ontario on land use planning”; however, it is imperative that the government take this input seriously and allocate the funding required for the First Nations to successfully and properly carry through as they deem necessary.

5. Ensure that this process does not add to the regulatory burden of business already imposed by the Ontario Mining Act and Endangered Species Act.

In the last two years, the province of Ontario has taken steps to initiate significant legislative shifts in both the mining and forestry sectors, two of the major industries in the northern Ontario. There are already major concerns within industry that recent work on such items as the Endangered Species Act, the Forest Tenure Modernization Act and the Mining Act adds barriers to business in an environment where red tape and regulatory duplication are already prevalent.

It is crucial that the implementation of the Far North Act not become another regulatory burden.

The FNA must set clear and transparent parameters for discussion between First Nations and business, and
provide mechanisms that allow for swift resolution of disputes, should they occur.

Signed,

Christine Leclair
President
Timmins Chamber of Commerce

Mark Weiman
Chair
Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce

Robert W. Reid
Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce

John Strang
President
North Bay & District Chamber of Commerce

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