Aboriginal consultant is key Ring of Fire point man – by Donna Faye (Northern Ontario Business – September 2012)posted in Aboriginal Mining, Ontario Mining, Ontario's Ring of Fire Mineral Discovery |
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After nearly a year in his role as Ring of Fire senior director for Webequie First Nation, Michael Fox says he is encouraged by the progress of the emerging mineral development project.
It has been more than two years since the Ontario government announced it would be opening up the large chromite deposit in the James Bay lowlands to development. “The lesson that I’ve learned is that there is always going to be politics,” he said.
“You have to deal with the politics, then the process, and then the project.” Fox’s job is not an easy task. He is responsible for consulting with the community closest to the discovery areas in the Ring of Fire with respect to the potential opportunities its members stand to gain.
Webequie First Nation is a remote, fly-in community of 600, situated 540 km north of Thunder Bay. It is west of where Cliffs Natural Resources wants to build a mine at its Black Thor chromite deposit, the largest of its kind in the world. With a 2015 production startup date, hundreds of construction, mining and transportation jobs will be created.
“It’s really about unbundling those opportunities to identify which ones are worth pursuing and whether or not we can pursue them on our own and, if not, then who to partner with,” said Fox.
He’s also assisting in the environmental assessment process, planning, community support and processes, enterprise creation, partnership development and establishing memorandums of understanding (MOU) between the community, the exploration companies and government.
“I offer strategic advice to the chief and council, technical presentations and analysis around the layered complexities with the Ring of Fire,” said Fox.
The concepts related to mining, such as environmental assessments, land-use planning and mine design, are new to the people of Webequie. In some cases, they have to create new linguistic terms. Part of Fox’s role is to make sure members understand the concepts and remain informed about the process.
Although Fox is positive about the project overall, he is certainly facing hurdles along the way.
In June, Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse expressed his disappointment when Noront Resources, a Ring of Fire exploration company, stopped providing the necessary resources to continue negotiations to reach an MOU.
But Fox is not likely to let this set him back.
After being appointed senior director in August 2011, Chief Wabasse praised Fox for his strategic thinking, business acumen, and community commitment to negotiating agreements that are based on Aboriginal and treaty rights.
Fox is no stranger to developing partnerships and projects in natural resources. He is the president of Fox High Impact Consulting, a Thunder Bay-based firm specializing in Aboriginal processes, participation, and partnership deals in the energy and mineral sectors. Most of his clients are Northern Ontario communities.
Previously, Fox worked as a resource sector specialist with the Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund, a Thunder Bay not-for-profit that assists Aboriginal entrepreneurs.
A father of three, Fox was raised in the Weenusk First Nation on the Hudson Bay coast before he moved to North Bay at age eight. He attended high school in Timmins, then headed to Lakehead University and graduated with an honours degree in political science with a focus on natural resource development and Aboriginal law.
Not unlike Fox, Webequie First Nation has also proven its tenacity when negotiating with government. Around the turn of the last century, treaty commissioners erroneously “sorted” the people of Webequie as members of the Fort Hope community, about 80 km away.
Webequie only received official reserve status in 2001.
As with many remote communities, Webequie has major social issues in dealing with housing needs, the high cost of living, and a dependence on diesel fuel for power.
The discovery of chromite represents an enormous opportunity, but what impact developments (like year-round road access) will have on the community and its traditional Ojibway culture and traditions, have yet to be determined.
“It’s a balancing act for the chief and council and the community; how to manage past and future,” said Fox.
Another challenge is planning and negotiating in a community-based process where the majority must be satisfied.
“They are the primary ones you have to deal with, the members of the First Nations communities. The dynamics between community and company are critical. My strategic value is my understanding of this.”