Photo by Cheryl Chetkiewicz / WCS Canada
This sub-Arctic and boreal region is defined by ecological values that are both unique and in some cases globally significant including being part of the largest, intact boreal forest in the world, the largest peatland and wetland complexes in the world, habitats for species designated at risk by federal and provincial regulators including caribou, wolverine and lake sturgeon, migratory shorebirds, nesting songbirds, and species of cultural value and significance to First Nations living throughout the region such as moose, waterfowl, and fish.
This region is a homeland to Indigenous Peoples, First Nations who have lived on the land and kept its lands, waters, wildlife, rocks, minerals, and other relatives healthy and abundant since time before memory. The Ililiwak, Ininiwak, Inninuwug, and Anishinaabeg Nations are the only population living in the region and as the stewards of the land, retain deep connections and jurisdiction over the future of the region – its protection and development.
First Nations relationships with settler governments like Canada and Ontario are governed by Treaty No. 9 and First Nations communities have been engaged with provincial and federal governments on issues related to land use planning, resource development, conservation and protection of fish and wildlife, and impact assessment across the region.
Alex Ostamas catching fish (Neskantaga First Nation)
Photo by Cheryl Chetkiewicz
The Kipling Generating Station on the Lower Mattagami River
Photo by Connie O’Connor / WCS Canada
What are “critical minerals”?
Governments define critical minerals as minerals associated with various products such as smartphones, computer monitors, cardiac implants, magnetic resonance imaging machines and batteries including for the “green economy,” information and communications, and “clean” technology.
Economy literally means management of the house or home. A healthy economy depends on the health of the ecosytems in which it is embedded.
Historically, the main driver of the economy between Indigenous Peoples and settlers in the region was the Euro-Canadian business known as the fur trade, which accelerated with the arrival and establishment of the Hudson Bay Company and its French rivals at the turn of the 18th century.
The fur trade economy peaked in 1783–1821 and eventually collapsed as furbearers such as American beaver were decimated. Caribou, used as food, also declined with the advance of traders and their guns bringing with them a shift from subsistence economies to hunting and trapping for trade products
Treaty No. 9 was supposed to pave the way for First Nations in the region to engage with settler governments (Canada, Ontario) on issues affecting First Nations homelands and their economies, including settlement, agriculture, mining, and infrastructure, particularly railroads. But the reality has been more exploitative than about sharing the land.
Today, there is a bureaucratic economy on reserves generating some employment for some community members, particularly around health and education. Much of the region supports a “mixed economy” defined by social scientists and economists as a subsistence lifestyle with government transfer payments, grants, and programs as well as some wage employment. First Nations continue to rely on traditional economies related to fish, animals, and plants as part of their food sovereignty which is the basis for inherent, Aboriginal and Treaty rights. Other renewable and non-renewable “economies” are described below.
Mineral Exploration and Mining
The first post-fur trade non-Indigenous settlements in northern Ontario were established by miners. The most sustained and dramatic prospecting and mining activity took place in northern Ontario where it overlaps the Boreal Shield, some of the hardest and oldest rock in the world (e.g., Precambrian Shield). Mining has dominated Ontario’s economy since the late 1800s and passed the Ontario Mining Act in 1868 to regulate the industry. The Act was “modernized” in 2009 as a result of series of high profile disputes in Ontario with First Nations and mining companies.
Mining projects have ecological, social, and economic effects throughout the mining cycle of exploration, mine life, and long after closure. Mining projects have well-known legacies including the depletion of non-renewable ore bodies, boom/bust effects on communities and economies, residual effects on land, water, wildlife, and communities, and remaining infrastructure when the mine closes or is abandoned.
In the Ring of Fire region disturbance due to mining and loss of peatlands in the area covered by mining claims could lead to a loss of at least 130 to 250 Mt of carbon. Both the implications of climate change on mining in the Ring of Fire as well as the anticipated impacts of mining on carbon budgets for Ontario and Canada will be critical.
Today, Ontario is considered a global producer of nickel, copper, gold, and the first diamond mine in Ontario is located downstream from the Ring of Fire and the vision for mineral exploration and mining is guided by the vision and strategies outlined in Ontario’s Mineral Development Strategy. More recently, Ontario has focused its mining and mineral exploration attention on critical minerals.
Forestry has a long history of land-use planning and environmental assessment processes led by the Ontario government but this has largely emerged out of conflicts with First Nations.
During the 1970s, a 1976 memorandum of understanding between the Government of Ontario and Reed Paper Ltd. gave the company the right to harvest timber from part of the last, largest tract of uncut forest in the province. In 1976, the Grand Chief of Grand Council Treaty No. 9 called for an inquiry to address resource development impacts and processes and the lack of environment assessment north of the 50th parallel. The result was the Royal Commission on the Northern Environment (RCNE) and the 1982 West Patricia Land Use Plan. Forestry development north of the Area of Undertaking (AOU) was not considered again until the development of the Northern Boreal Initiative (NBI) policy framework in 2001.
The purpose of the NBI was to open up the area north of the AOU to new commercial forestry opportunities and other forms of resource development as well as to facilitate economic renewal, employment opportunities, and resource stewardship for First Nations communities in the Far North. The community-based approach associated with the NBI would become the foundation for community-based land use planning under the Far North Act, 2010.
In 2006, Ontario adopted the first land-use strategy under the NBI planning initiative for the Whitefeather Forest and Adjacent Areas. In June 2013, Pikangikum First Nation was issued a sustainable forest license for the Whitefeather Forest. In the Ring of Fire, Eabametoong and Mishkeegogamang First Nations also identified the Taa She Kay Win Planning Area of Interest.
Ontario has a long history of hydroelectric development starting in 1906 with the establishment of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission as part of the public power movement to supply accessible and low-cost electricity throughout Ontario.
The energy sector underwent a major restructuring in late 1990s as Ontario Hydro was privatized. Deregulation led to the opening of the electricity market in 2002 to private investment. In the 2000s, Ontario established a number of legislative changes and energy policies to address conservation and climate change and there have been considerable shifts with each government in both the supply mix (e.g., coal, renewables, nuclear) and the demand forecasts. The result is a complex mix of private and public actors in the sector that has shifted under each government.
Prior to 2010, the Integrated Power System Plan (IPSP) under the responsibility of the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) guided the provinces future energy demand however this was abandoned and replaced with the Long Term Energy Plan (LTEP) in 2010 that was not reviewed or approved by the Ontario Energy Board. The current government repealed the regulation mandating a new LTEP and is considering different perspectives on how to create the conditions for a “more transparent, accountable, effective system in which rate-payers are sufficiently protected and investors are provided greater certainty for their projects.”
Hydroelectric developments affecting areas of northern Ontario, including the Ring of Fire region, were established in the early 1900s. For example, some of the early dams were established in the Moose River basin both for electricity and to support forestry. While not all are in the Ring of Fire region, many of the developments were in the headwaters, affecting downstream environments that are in the region including:
- Sandy Falls (on the Mattagami River near Timmins) opened in 1911
- Iroquois Falls (on the Abitibi River) opened in 1914
- Smooth Rock Falls (on the Mattagami River) opened in 1916
- Smoky Falls (on the Lower Mattagami north of Kapuskasing — right on the Ontario Far North line) opened in 1928 — flooded Moose Cree homes and land
- Abitibi Canyon (on the Abitibi River) opened in 1936 — flooded Taykwa Tagamou homes and land
Diversions were also developed to support electricity and industry demands south of the region. For example, in the Albany River basin, two diversions take waterfrom its natural flow north, into Hudson Bay, and reroute the water south, into the Great Lakes. These diversions are:
- In 1937-1938, a diversion was created at Long Lake, so that water started flowing south to Lake Superior rather than north to the Kenogami River, and eventually the Albany River, and Hudson Bay flooded 142 acres of the Long Lake #58 reserve, leaving about a square mile for 1,200 people
- In 1943, a large part of the Ogoki River (which flows into the Albany River) was diverted south, into Lake Nipigon, and then eventually into the Great Lakes. The intention was to increase water flow for the generating station at Niagara Falls. This diversion increased the Lake Nipigon watershed by almost 60%, and displaced First Nations in the area – OPG apologized to Gull Bay in 2014
- In 1958, a third diversion was created at Lake St Joseph, to route water into Lac Seul, and eventually into the Nelson River which flows to Hudson Bay through Manitoba
Another notable event was the opening of the Adam Creek spillway in 1963 – it’s estimated that >50 million m3 of sediments eroded from Adam Creek in the first few decades of operation, some of being carried all the way to James Bay, and creating new gravel bars near Moose Factory. After decades of fighting for compensation, Moose Cree received a settlement and apology from OPG, and Moose Cree became 25% equity partners in the Lower Mattagami Hydroelectric Complex – Amisk-oo-Skow Agreement.
Due to previous flooding and harms caused to First Nations homelands as a result of dams and flooding, hydroelectric development proposals in the Severn, Winisk, Attawapiskat, and Albany Rivers are subject to the Northern Rivers and Moose River Basin commitments, which include a restriction on large-scale hydroelectric development (> 25 megawatt [MW]) and require a proposal and/or partnership with the Indigenous community or communities before they can proceed and in 2010, Ontario’s Far North Science Advisory Panel recommended maintaining a moratorium on large-scale hydroelectric development in the absence of cumulative effects assessment and extending it to include inter-basin water diversions.
In general, the assessment and development of hydroelectric projects on northern rivers in the Ring of Fire region have been driven by supply and demand requirements for Ontario. For example, in 1990, Ontario Hydro released their long term (25-year) Demand/Supply plan which included proposals for new generating sites and re-development of existing sites in the Moose River and Albany River Basins.
Freshwater and fisheries have been important economies for some including the world-class brook trout fishery in the Sutton River. There has also been a history of commercial fisheries throughout the region, including for lake sturgeon.
Commercial fishing for lake sturgeon started in the 1930s, and switched from lake sturgeon to mostly lake whitefish and walleye in the 1950s – licensing system established in 1950.
In the 1970s, there were concerns over the sustainability of lake sturgeon fisheries, and also concerns over mercury levels in some of the other fish – combined with the high cost of transport (fish had to be flown out) commercial fisheries closed down.
There are also fly-in outposts on some of the lakes for recreational and sport fishing for walleye and northern pike.
Protected areas established under provincial and federal legislation such as the Provincial Park and Conservation Reserve Act (PPRCA) cover 9% of the far north region.
Both the Far North Science Advisory Panel and Far North Planning Advisory Council provided advice to Ontario on how to protect and conserve nature and people, including the role of First Nations, while considering the economic values in the region in their respective reports. None of these recommendations have been taken up by Ontario to date.
Under the Far North Act, 2010, there were commitments to protect “areas of cultural value and ecological systems, including at least 225,000 square kilometres in an interconnected network of protected areas designated in community based land use plans”. Despite universal condemnation by First Nations, NAN and other Indigenous groups of the Far North Act process and legislation, some First Nation communities in the region identified Dedicated Protected Areas in the process with Ontario. No formal protection emerged from this process and the Act is now being reviewed.
None of the protected and conservation areas established by Ontario obtained the free, prior, and informed consent of the First Nations communities affected by these land uses.
Two Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) have received federal and foundation funding including:
- Fawn River Indigenous Protected Area (Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug); and,
- North French First Nation Protected Area (Moose Cree First Nation). These have not been formally recognized by federal or provincial governments.
Watch this movie from the Conservation Through Reconciliation Partnership (CRP) to learn more about IPCAs.
Ecosystem services refers to a scientific approach that tries to establish the value of nature to people. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) was a UN-sponsored effort initiated in 2000 to analyze and quantify the impact of human actions on ecosystems and human well-being as well as the options to restore, conserve or enhance the sustainable use of ecosystems The MEA identified four major categories of ecosystem services: provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting services:
- Provisioning services: “products” obtained by people directly from ecosystems (e.g., food, fiber, timber).
- Regulating services: “benefits” obtained by people from the regulation of ecosystems (e.g., climate regulation, water regulation, disease regulation).
- Cultural services: “nonmaterial benefits” people obtain from ecosystems (e.g., recreation, spiritual values, aesthetics)
- Supporting services: “indirect services” that are necessary for provisioning, regulating, and cultural services such as soil formation, nutrient cycling, photosynthesis, among others.
The terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems that define the Ring of Fire region offer a number of “services” that are important to people but that are rarely considered in planning, impact assessment, or decision-making in northern Ontario.
These include fresh water (e.g., headwaters of major rivers as well as lakes), food (e.g., fish, wildlife, traditionally harvested plants), medicines, genetic resources, as well as other values that matter to people including those that can’t be “quantified” such as cultural and spiritual values.
Some of these services extend well beyond the Ring of Fire. For example, supporting services such as fish and wildlife found throughout the region are the basis for food security and food sovereignty and the cultural and spiritual values of many First Nations.
Services provided by muskeg, peatlands and wetlands include the filtration of contaminants and nutrients affecting water quality, carbon storage and sequestration functions that regulate the climate, and managing water quantity in response to flooding and erosion processes which taken as a whole benefit First Nations throughout the north as well as Ontarians, Canadians, and the world.