WEBEQUIE FIRST NATION, ONT. — A bald eagle soars from the east between the evergreen branches of an uninhabited island in Ontario’s Far North and swoops in front of a fisherman’s small aluminum boat.
Another eagle flaps nearby as the boat speeds toward fertile fishing grounds. Sightings of the majestic bird on this fly-in First Nation reserve have become more frequent, just as at-risk woodland caribou have started trekking through Webequie’s land.
So have wolves. And last winter, a wolverine — another threatened species — was spotted on the ice road connecting the community on the skinny northern tip of Eastwood Island to the nearest town 250 kilometres southwest.
Some say the eagles, the wolves and the caribou signal that wildlife is fleeing the Ring of Fire, an area of mining development that has been dubbed “Canada’s next oilsands.” The boggy region in the James Bay lowlands is less than 90 kilometres southeast of this reserve, and in one of the world’s last undisturbed forests. It is farther north than most Canadians have ever travelled.
At the moment, the Ring of Fire is little more than a 20-kilometre strip of discoveries surrounded by prospectors’ stakes, drilling equipment and dirt roads in the midst of a marsh.
But the influence of the massive deposit of minerals could soon threaten to swallow this First Nation. Webequie is squarely in the mouth of the Ring of Fire, a 5,000-square-kilometre crescent the size of eight Torontos.
Before mining companies can consider breaking ground, the crucial question of how to transport the valuable cargo out of the remote region must be answered. A highway connecting the Ring of Fire to the Trans-Canada hundreds of kilometres to the south could be the first permanent connection to Webequie and other isolated native communities in Ontario’s far north.
It could be one of the most transformational stretches of highway in Canada’s history.
For resource companies, the route could determine whether projects get off the ground. For the people of Webequie, the stakes are even higher; it could change their entire way of life.
As some of the most neglected areas of Canada, Webequie and surrounding First Nations in the far north have the most to win and the most to lose along the road to development. The path could lead the community out of poverty, replacing despair with opportunity. But it could also provide greater access to negative influences, such as drugs and alcohol, that already afflict some of its members.
To Webequie members, the lush group of islands, the lakes and rivers that dot the area are a link to those ancestors — a source of food, medicine, reflection and spirituality. They believe it is their responsibility to care for the land and all of its inhabitants.
To resource companies, the land’s value lies underground. Miners eyeing a potential $50 billion in profits must convince the affected First Nations communities that they can be trusted to ensure that everyone — natives, governments and industry — benefits from resource extraction at a minimal cost to the environment.
Guardians of the Land
The allure of the Ring of Fire region is not lost on the people of Webequie. Like prospectors, they value the resources in that swampy swath of land but the influx of mining activity has already affected their way of life.
Trappers, hunters, fishers and gatherers from the reserve began reporting helicopters whirring across the sky and prospectors staking claims to riches on their land about a decade ago.
“All of a sudden, these people who were going out on the land see these markings,” says Webequie band councillor Elsie MacDonald, a soft-spoken former chief with a pragmatic mind and warm embrace for a stranger.
“And that’s when they come back and say, ‘who is this on our traditional territory? What are they doing, and what’s their purpose’?”
It was that tract of land to the east where they gathered with neighbouring bands for centuries before it was nicknamed the Ring of Fire by miners.
“There’s a really great blueberry patch out there. People used to fill up their buckets with them,” MacDonald says, though her uncle’s visit there three years ago is the last time she recalls someone travelling to the area for berry picking.
Webequie First Nation people have lived off this land for hundreds of years, since the small island was nothing more than a meeting place for families living nomadically in the surrounding bush, following wild game and migration routes. Elders trace the first permanent settlements back to the 1800s, and oral history of their presence dates to a century earlier.
Given the community’s reliance on the forest, they are wary about development. Potential effects include a loss of local species, contamination of land and water from spills or seepage and the degradation of peatlands that act as a carbon sink. Even if environmental damage can be contained, the influx of human activities in the area could deter wildlife from following their natural migration routes.
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