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Last-minute meeting stirs suspicions of First Nations
Summer is hitting Northwestern Ontario early this year, and tempers have started to heat up and boil over in response to the latest mining project proposal in the Ring of Fire area.
The Cleveland-based mining company Cliffs Natural Resources (CNR) announced a $3.3 billion investment to build a chromite mine and transportation corridor about 540 km northeast of Thunder Bay. As part of that investment, a $1.8 billion processing plant is to be built near Sudbury, which is about 1,000 km southeast of Thunder Bay.
Though First Nations and municipalities alike were disappointed the smelter plant wouldn’t be located in their region, a few of the First Nations think there are a number of other things wrong with the project.
Just before the location of the processing plant was announced on May 9, Aroland First Nation Chief Sonny Gagnon was demanding more information from the province on its dealings with Ciffs.
Gagnon filed a request for disclosure to the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (MNDM) demanding information related to the project. Alarm bells went off in Gagnon’s head after a meeting with the head of the company.
“We met with the CEO and president of Cliffs Natural Resources on May the 1st to get some dialogue going on how the Ring of Fire is going to be developed. We gave him what our position is, but he told us that he has a confidentiality agreement with the government and can’t disclose anything,” said Gagnon in a telephone interview.
That shocked Gagnon who wanted to be included in talks that affected development in his ‘backyard.’ Gagnon said his nation was forgotten in the talks between the province and company. He wants transparency.
”I want to know what was said, who said what, and who’s out there looking after the best interest of my First Nation.”
The other issue that irked Gagnon was a meeting between provincial officials and Marten Falls First Nations just the day before the processing plant announcement. Gagnon hadn’t known about the meeting until he was invited to it by Chief Eli Moonias.
Neither chief liked the last-minute meeting where they were presented with a consultation framework, training opportunities and funding, things they had been requesting for nearly two years. They wanted a chance to go over the framework and other items before an announcement was made, but that wasn’t in the province’s plans.
Gagnon said, “I guess they were trying to buy us out or divide and conquer us at the last minute or maybe soften the blow. They offered what we’ve been asking for all along. I’m not opposed to what they’re offering. But, at the 11th hour?” Gagnon added, “I’m concerned about the ethics of the mining minister on how he does his business. We asked him to tell Cliffs to hold off on their announcement until we look at what they proposed to us and he said they have no control over that. My question is, who has control over our lands? Is it the minister or a Cleveland-based company?”
Gagnon also mentioned that the meeting was held in the absence of other First Nations with interest in the area.
Ontario Minister of Northern Development and Mines Rick Bartolucci disagreed that the meeting came last minute. He said, “It certainly wasn’t the 11th hour. It was before an announcement was going to be made and we wanted to ensure that First Nations communities were given advance warning. And I would think that some of them said this framework was something they wanted attached to our discussions in the Ring of Fire.”
Moonias admits there was some consultation over the past couple of years, but not nearly enough. He said, “They (the province) didn’t tell us about the proposed framework. We should have been talking about this months ago. Twenty-four hours before the announcement is not consultation. That’s an ambush.”
Environmental impacts are also of concern to the eight First Nations surrounding the Ring of Fire development area. The company is in the early stages of the environmental assessment stage of the project, and First Nations would very much like to be a part of the process. Moonias points out that the proposed open pit mine will include a tailings pond and he’s worried pollution will leach into water tables to eventually affect the health of the nearby Mukutei River and other tributaries.
Bill Boor, senior vice-president of Global Ferroalloys, Cliffs Natural Resources said, “The decision of CEAA (Canadian Environmental Review Agency) has been that we follow a comprehensive review of the process. Even before that decision was made, Cliffs has been talking to the communities, negotiating and coming up together with a process that we make sure addresses their concerns and we’re still working at that with some communities.”
Aroland and Marten Falls First Nations weren’t the only communities feeling slighted by the announcement and last minute meeting. Media quotes Neskatanga First Nation Chief Peter Moonias saying he would put his life on the line to ensure the rights of his community are protected. He told media that he’s worried the mine will destroy his community from environmental and cultural perspectives. Lawyers for the community have sent a letter to Bartolucci saying the province may have broken the law by striking a deal with Cliffs.
Moonias has also asked that the Ministry of Natural Resources hold off on issuing permits for road construction to the mine.
Cliffs has a fairly aggressive schedule. The company plans to start production in 2015. But on the ground, it doesn’t look like the project will be moving too fast. Gagnon told media on May 18 that he won’t be allowing mining trucks and surveyors through the route in his community.
Aroland is the gateway to the site, where road construction is to begin. Gagnon is seeking more discussion with both the province and the company.
Marten Falls First Nation Chief Eli Moonias applauds the move from Gagnon. Moonias said, “Gagnon is blocking construction through his territory right now, and I fully support him.”
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