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Getting it Right in the Ring of Fire

19 June 2014

WHAT’S AT RISK?

Ontario’s Far North is a unique place and is of global significance.  On a world scale, it supports intact boreal and freshwater ecosystems, contains the largest wetlands in North America, the second largest peatland complex on the continent, and the largest intact boreal forest left in the world.  

These systems are important for many fish and wildlife, some of which are at-risk, and they provide globally significant services like carbon storage and climate regulation.  While the future of the Far North is uncertain given climate change and new industrial development, both of these factors need to be considered proactively in planning.  

The boreal landscape near Kasabonika Lake © WCS Canada / Cheryl Chetkiewicz.

Industrial development in Ontario’s Far North focuses on world-class deposits of minerals.  In addition to gold and diamonds, there are significant deposits of chromite and nickel that new mining proposals in the Ring of Fire are hoping to exploit.  Because these deposits are remote, any viable option for development requires all-weather roads and energy.  These region-opening developments and roads bring both opportunities and risks.  For example, with new mining projects come benefits to First Nations and Ontario through jobs and revenues, but also inevitable boom and bust cycles as markets fluctuate and orebodies are eventually depleted.  New infrastructure, particularly new roads, can fragment the region’s habitat for species at risk such as caribou and lake sturgeon.  Depending on their location and use, new roads can have social impacts on remote communities that today are accessible only by air or provincial road networks during the winter (on winter roads).    

In addition to the unique ecological systems in the Far North, it remains a homeland to approximately 24, 000 First Nations people who live in 34 remote communities.  First Nations enjoy Aboriginal and treaty rights in this region based on their relationships to the land and governments, but rely on this environment for food and medicines, cultural and spiritual values, and livelihoods.  In general, the boom-bust nature of mining economies, the relationships between government, industry, and First Nations, and the region-opening nature of any new mines and roads mean First Nations must consider how to invite new development and economic opportunities without impacting their respect for the land and responsibilities to future generations.  

ONTARIO’S BIG COMMITMENTS TO THE FAR NORTH

In 2008, Ontario’s then-Premier, the Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty, announced that 225,000 km2 (more than half of Ontario’s Far North) would be protected from development.  Ontario’s Far North Act, 2010 enabled their vision by mandating protection of ecological processes and services and a significant role for First Nations in planning to support sustainable development.  In addition to land-use planning processes under the Far North Act, 2010, new development proposals such as mines are reviewed and approved in environmental assessment processes enabled by Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012.   However, these are not integrated in the Far North, making it difficult to determine how development and conservation goals will be achieved.  We need new tools to help address the risks and opportunities in this special environment and bring planning into a regional-scale and integrated process. 

Last week’s provincial elections gave the Ontario Liberals a majority government.  This week, they are getting ready to make some big decisions on development in the Far North.  One of these includes when, where, and how to build a new road to this remote region, which new mines for minerals like nickel and chromite will need.  But in order to manage the environmental and social risks, the disconnect between current environmental planning laws needs to be addressed from the outset in order to consider the “big picture” in the Far North. 

Highway 60 running through Algonquin Park © Dimana Kolarova/Creative Commons.  Roads facilitate access to natural resources, connect communities, move goods to markets, and move people to work.  But, roads are a source of direct mortality for many species while also destroying and fragmenting habitats.   Caribou, for example, avoid roads because they are at a higher risk of predation when close to roads.   Read about the study here. 

So, how does Ontario “get it right” in the Ring of Fire?  How does Ontario hope to meet its responsibilities for the environment and to First Nations?  How does it plan to balance the initial high costs of development, particularly at remote mine sites, with the boom and bust economies anticipated and the long-term protection of the natural environment in this remote region?

Nickel Rim South Mine near Sudbury, Ontario © Creative Commons. Remote mines, like the ones proposed in Ontario’s Far North, will require facilities to house and service workers that move to the area temporarily during advanced exploration and mining phases.  Proponents are required by law to submit a closure plan for approval that must also be reviewed by Aboriginal communities.  These regulations are a response to a lack of accountability and consultation as well as the legacy of living with the impacts of abandoned mine sites, many of which still hold toxic wastes  that leak into surrounding waters.

ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING IN THE FAR NORTH

Ontario’s current set of planning laws cannot address the special risks to the environment and First Nations that new industrial development brings.  Why?  Because current environmental assessments are narrowly focused – usually just examining the impacts of individual projects, pieces of projects, or within limited planning boundaries – with little or no attention to the cumulative effects of multiple projects.  They also do not address sustainable development with First Nations, provide limited engagement with the public, and do not enjoy independent review. In a region of this scale, this is like trying to map out a 1000-km journey one inch at a time. If we don’t adopt new tools and approaches, we are likely headed toward conflict and delays as the ecological risks of piecemeal development become apparent and citizens and First Nations push back against business-as-usual decision making that affects their homelands and futures. 

Remote First Nation communities near the Ring of Fire, like Marten Falls, have the most to gain and lose from proposed new mining and infrastructure proposals © WCS Canada / Jenni McDermid.

GOING FORWARD

Right now, Ontario has a chance to do things right.  One of the new tools and approaches that could fulfill our need for regional environmental planning and better integrate land-use planning and environmental assessment processes is Regional Strategic Environmental Assessment (R-SEA).  In a new working paper by WCS Canada and Ecojustice, Dr. Anastasia Lintner and I outline how the current laws and approvals result in poorly coordinated development decisions which affects both the natural and human communities in the region.  We describe what R-SEA is, how it could be implemented in the Far North, and how it has been applied in Canada and overseas.  

Now that the 2014 provincial election is over, Premier Wynne is poised to deliver on her campaign promise to invest $1 billion in infrastructure to support development in the Ring of Fire area. If this is the direction we’re heading, we need to look where we’re going. New all-weather roads and transmission lines in intact environments and through the traditional lands of First Nations require regional and coordinated planning, something that Ontario’s current laws don’t afford. Approving new development projects and calling this a “win-win” is easy, but figuring out what comes after the mining stops (e.g., how to replace the jobs that were created, how to maintain roads and transmission lines without mining revenues, and how to prevent heavy-metals and toxic processing chemicals from leaking from tailings impoundments into the local environment) is the hard part.  If the Government of Ontario is to “get things right” and generate positive outcomes for the economy, society, and environment in Ontario’s Far North, we need planning tools like R-SEA in the Ring of Fire before we fire up the bulldozers and permanently change one of the world’s most important wild landscapes. 

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