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A northwestern Ontario First Nation leader said his concerns about mining development in the Ring of Fire are falling on deaf ears with Cliffs Natural Resources.
Chief Sonny Gagnon of Aroland First Nation said his hour-long meeting this week with CEO Joseph Carrabba produced little in the way of results from the Ohio mining giant.
“He viewed what we gave him as threats and said he might not come back. Well, have a good life.” Gagnon met with Carrabba just prior to his May 1 speech in Thunder Bay at the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.
Carrabba told a lunchtime crowd that the company’s decision on the location of a much-coveted ferrochrome smelter was only days away.
The company’s technical work at its Black Thor chromite deposit in the James Bay lowlands is expected to advance into the feasibility evaluation stage in the next couple of months.
Although the company hasn’t officially announced the location of the smelter, all indications point to Sudbury where Cliffs bought property last year at the former Moose Mountain Mine north of Capreol.
Aroland and Marten Falls First Nation want the refinery established in the northwest at Exton in the municipality of Greenstone. The communities have drawn support from other chiefs and mayors across the northwest, including Thunder Bay.
Marten Falls claims their traditional lands are where the Ring of Fire chromite deposits are located, while Aroland is next to the Exton site.
“They’re in pre-feasibility stage,” said Gagnon, “and our plan, on how we want the smelter here, would have fit in. I don’t if know if he (Carrabba) even gave us the time of day to see if it’s feasible.”
Gagnon said Carrabba revealed little during the meeting, insisting he was bound by a confidentiality agreement with the province on the location of the smelter.
“Carrabba said they’re following the rules of the (provincial) government.”
Gagnon accuses the McGuinty government of making political “backroom deals” to benefit Sudbury.
Gagnon said his community won’t stand for being left out of the decision-making process on how the project unfolds.
“We told them if you don’t negotiate a good agreement, there’s going to be no mine. If they’re going to build a smelter in Sudbury, they better find something to smelt. It’s not going to come out of my backyard.”
He refused to elaborate on what action he might take, preferring to wait for Cliffs’ upcoming announcement before going to his membership for direction.
Gagnon wants a “negotiated process” on the project’s environmental assessment, beyond the comprehensive assessment now underway.
He was angered by a recent Cliffs investors conference call where Carrabba maintained the company has had “very good discussions with the external stakeholders, and with the first nations…and the environmental impact study is moving along.”
“There’s no relationship,” Gagnon responded. “I haven’t sat across the table from Cliffs.”
Outside of Cliffs’ base case in its public submission for the federal environmental assessment, Gagnon said his people have little idea what it entails.
He wants someone trained to translate and simplify technical information into terms his people can understand.
“I need the resources to understand what (Cliffs is) going to be saying. I want my community members to be afforded a resource person that can look at the project description, have our meeting, and then bring Cliffs on board so we have the knowledge of asking the right questions.”
In an emailed response, a Cliffs spokeswoman said only that Gagnon had misspoke in a previous interview that the mine was scheduled to startup in 2013, when in fact it is 2015.
Exton is pegged as a major logistics hub for miners working in the Ring of Fire to haul chromite ore by truck or railroad south for reloading or switching onto the Canadian National Railway for shipment to a processing plant in Ontario or internationally.
Gagnon said a ferrochrome processing plant would create as many as 500 jobs, a potential boost that the area’s economy desperately needs.
“Forestry’s died, there’s no economy here, Nakina and Greenstone people have left to go out West and the value of goods is high here because the economy is gone.”
If the smelter is awarded to Sudbury, Gagnon worries that there is no impetus on the province’s part to connect isolated First Nation communities – which run on expensive diesel power – up to the provincial hydro grid.
“The smelter is the key to putting the grid up to the Ring of Fire and bringing the (power) lines to each community.”
Gagnon said First Nations and Cliffs should be able to “walk hand-in-hand” in developing a plan where First Nations receive a large equity stake in mining-related activities and transportation infrastructure.
“I’m not settling for beads and trinkets again. I want ownership of the railroad and whatever else we can own. This is for 100 years down the line and I’m working for my grandchildren and I’m not going to stop short of doing that.”