It was a brief release on the website of the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. More telling, it was released on March 4 — a Sunday. It looks like the medium was the message. In this case, that message is trouble for the Liberals.
The release announced that 23,000 square kilometres of land in the northwestern corner of Ontario were being withdrawn from prospecting and mining to “give clarity to the province’s mineral exploration industry and avoid future disagreements over the land in question.”
That clarity was required after a showdown between the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation and God’s Lake Resources, a junior exploration company. And KI won hands down.
Mines Minister Rick Bartolucci said KI “clearly isn’t ready to enter into an agreement … so we believe it was better for all concerned if we withdrew those lands.”
The decision, KI Chief Donny Morris said on the Wawatay News website, was an historic event and there should have been at least a signing agreement. But KI was not told of the ministry’s decision before the announcement.
In 2009, KI won a similar battle with exploration firm Planitex. The company withdrew from its Big Trout Lake platinum project after the province paid out $5 million in the wake of KI’s aggressive fight against exploration.
Which brings us to the Ring of Fire, and the likely reason the ministry wasn’t high on photo ops of a signing agreement with KI.
The RoF is a 5,000-square-kilometre tract of land that is potentially a 100-year source of minerals valued at up to $1 trillion — the same value placed on all the minerals extracted in Sudbury since mining began there. The RoF sits 500 km northwest of Thunder Bay. It contains chromite, nickel, copper and other minerals. Such are its riches that people in Thunder Bay are musing about whether the region is prepared to handle up to 55,000 jobs the RoF could create. Nice problem.
Not so nice if you’re a government eager to capitalize on the economic boost the RoF can generate for the entire province and you’ve just drawn a road map for First Nations willing to wait out mining firms. Bartolucci says most First Nations are anxious to reap the economic benefits of the RoF, so he sees several impact benefit agreements that have been signed as the “model” for how development will unfold.
The Liberals are trying to juggle a lot of balls to develop the RoF.
Here’s one: Cliffs Natural Resources, which plans to spend $3 billion on its properties, including construction of a $1.8 billion ferrochome smelter possibly in either Greater Sudbury or Thunder Bay, wants a 600-km north-south transportation corridor built to facilitate movement of ore. It’s the most economical route, Cliffs says. And it would make construction of a smelter in Sudbury possible.
But four First Nations bands have signed an agreement to seek an east-west route, which would pretty much force a smelter to be built in the tiny community of Greenstone. That would open up the possibility of providing power to some isolated fly-in communities that are running on diesel fuel.
Premier Dalton McGuinty says the province will play a “modest” role in deciding the route of the transportation corridor. Ultimately, Cliffs will decide where it wants to build its smelter. And the location will likely identify the required transportation route.
But considering the life-changing stakes involved for isolated First Nations communities, the company might not have the clout it thought it did.