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THUNDER BAY, ONT. – This is familiar turf for Michael Gravelle. He is in his second stint as Ontario’s point man on northern mining, an increasingly high-stakes gig rooted in his own backyard.
His hometown of Thunder Bay is the gateway for the Ring of Fire, which he bills as the biggest Ontario mining project in a century. Governments at all levels are eyeing the potential of Northwestern Ontario’s vast untapped resource deposits, while mining services companies set up in the city hoping to catch a multibillion-dollar boom.
But slumping commodity prices, environmental questions and delays threaten the Ring of Fire, which lies about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, and hopes of a windfall in the region. One company has halted its environmental review, while First Nations and Thunder Bay’s mayor say the province has been slow to act.
Cue Mr. Gravelle, the local MPP who, five months ago, was shuffled back to the job of Minister of Northern Development and Mines. He is optimistic despite setbacks and tensions.
“I have an opportunity to help be someone that moves this forward,” Mr. Gravelle said this week over coffee at Thunder Bay’s Hoito restaurant. He finished radiation treatment for cancer two weeks ago, but has continued to work. This week, the province gave him help, appointing former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci as its lead negotiator to strike a deal with First Nations on development in the area.
“I see great opportunities for everyone in Northern Ontario, and those in my riding as well,” Mr. Gravelle said. “So, what will be will be. What will be will be. We’re at a very important stage right now in this process.”
The so-called Ring of Fire is a 5,000-square-kilometre crescent of chromite, nickel, copper, zinc and gold – a vast deposit discovered a decade ago in remote Northern Ontario, much of it inaccessible by road and surrounded by nine Matawa First Nations. Interest in development took off when Mr. Gravelle held the mining portfolio from 2007 to 2011. /// The Ring of Fire’s proponents say it would be a jolt to the national economy. Tony Clement, the federal cabinet minister responsible for economic development in Northern Ontario, has estimated the deposit’s value at between $30-billion and $50-billion.
But for all the talk of economic benefit, Mr. Gravelle said nothing will happen without support from First Nations. That puts pressure on Mr. Iacobucci and former Ontario premier Bob Rae, who is stepping down as an MP to represent First Nations in the talks.
“They want to get going. I think there’s been a feeling of frustration,” Mr. Rae said after touring the nine communities this week. First Nations want to be approached as equals and are open to development so long as they have a seat at the table, he said.
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