Ontario-NAN agreement needed for [Ring of Fire] project ‘reboot’ – by Bill Gallagher (Onotassiniik Magazine – February 2014)

Onotassiniik Magazine is Wawatay’s Mining Quarterly: http://www.onotassiniik.com/

Lakehead University appears to have filled a gap in bringing together key perspectives in its attempt to ‘reboot’ the Ring of Fire. The university’s Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Mining and Exploration in December hosted a conference about the role of government policy in sustainable mining development.

My presentation at the conference was a strategic, follow-the-evidence approach of Cliffs Natural Resources’ Black Thor project in the Ring of Fire and major projects elsewhere that had likewise tumbled into the project ‘death zone,’ and what these parallels now meant for the Ring of Fire. In my view, that Ring of Fire project is now gone for 10 years and before it comes back, shaping the window of opportunity for its return has to be the priority of all pro-development policy makers, business leaders, politicians and strategists.

Contrary to popular opinion, I drew attention to the fact that the ‘elephant in the room’ was none other than Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario. I said it was delusional for Ring of Fire planners to think that if only Cliffs could get Matawa tribal council on board, we would be off to the races.

Indeed, it will take the support of way more than Matawa’s nine First Nations (which are also members of NAN) to reboot the Ring of Fire, as supply lines, hydro sites and transmission, rail and road, concentrate processing, and environmental cumulative impacts are broader, deal-making factors. Simply, all these factors make developing the Ring of Fire a pan-northern resource extraction process.

I also proposed a breakthrough idea to further this end. Why doesn’t Ontario start negotiating a Ring of Fire impact benefits agreement (IBA) with NAN? This process would proceed in lockstep with Cliffs’ IBA negotiations with Matawa, so it would be one IBA for Matawa and another IBA for NAN. The province would now engage through its new body corporate (Ring of Fire Development Corporation) and NAN would likewise engage as a body corporate. These IBA negotiations would be based on contractual rules of interpretation, always keeping the dialogue squarely within business-case scenarios.

Since I have been a strategist to the most daunting IBA negotiation in Canada’s resources history at Voisey’s Bay in Labrador – likewise once in the project death zone – I can say from experience that this is where success has to materialize in the downtime. That’s how the star-crossed nickel project recreated its (second) window of opportunity, which ultimately saw a major mine move forward, leaving behind all the grief and project impediments that currently encumber such progress in the Ring of Fire.

It’s only once Native stakeholders come on side, demonstrably, that the federal government will come to the table. That’s been the case with all major mines, whether in Labrador or in the northern diamond plays. Moreover, new money will never materialize so long as litigation and Bay Street lawyers rule the roost, which unfortunately remains the defining dynamic today in the Ring of Fire.

So, this proposal for an IBA with NAN is intended to engage on another front entirely, where IBA progress can be made and measured on commercial terms. Only then will northern Ontarians be able to point to progress benchmarks and demand a rebooted project from all levels of government, the proponents, eco-activists and Native representatives. The key difference this time around would be that NAN and Matawa would be project partners thanks to their IBAs – the latter having recreated the missing project window of opportunity.

Nationally, the Native mood in the country is deteriorating on the resource-dialogue front. No less than three think tanks in Canada said as much this December alone.

For my part, I’ve been warning of “geographically landlocked–politically gridlocked–Native empowerment deadlocked” resource projects over the last three years. I even wrote a comprehensive book about it to warn Canadians of the after-market consequences.

Sadly, those consequences are now about to play out in the Ring of Fire. That’s why it’s imperative to engage on an IBA process with NAN today.

Bill Gallagher is the author of Resource Rulers: Fortune and Folly on Canada’s Road to Resources, available on Amazon.com (see his blog: http://billgallagher.ca/resource-rulers-book

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