Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are doggedly pursuing the dream of developing the Ring of Fire mining region in northern Ontario, despite a shaky economic foundation and likely tricky talks ahead with nearby First Nations.

Ford and his energy minister, Greg Rickford, were joined by the elected chiefs of two of those communities at the annual PDAC mining conference in Toronto this week. They were there to tout an agreement that will see those communities — the Webequie and Marten Falls First Nations — lead the environmental assessment for the middle part of a planned north-south road to connect the largely inaccessible region to highways further south.

“It’s historic news that is a real game changer,” said Ford, calling the agreement “a crucial step forward in unlocking the multi, and I say, multi-billion dollar opportunity that is northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire.”

A map of the proposed all-season road to the Ring of Fire region. Photo courtesy of Ontario government

Not so fast, say investors and other critics. There is little appetite to pour more money into mineral exploration in the region amid robust supply and after a major miner pulled out, leaving a junior to collect the staked claims at a discount and wait for better days ahead.

And the government’s divide and conquer strategy has already stirred up opposition from other nearby First Nation communities, which had been in long-running talks that broke down last year.

“You can expect opposition if Ontario, or any road proponent, tries to put a shovel in the ground of our territory without our consent,” Chief Chris Moonias of the Neskantaga First Nation said, according to TB Newswatch.

That community has endured the longest-running boil-water advisory in Canada.

Rickford said he hopes that construction on the southernmost point of the road could begin “within the next couple of years,” with all environmental assessments completed within five years.

Doug Ford remains committed to developing the remote Ring of Fire into a major mining zone, despite tough economics and opposition from some nearby First Nations.

The Ford government’s push to move the Ring of Fire project forward comes amid a more assertive Indigenous position when it comes to territorial sovereignty more generally, most notably evident in the opposition of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to the construction of a natural gas pipeline through their unceded territory. Solidarity actions in support of the chiefs have stymied rail transport in various parts of the country for weeks.

Ford later acknowledged that the government had no firm estimates of the mineral wealth contained in the Ring of Fire, which was subject to significant hype that has since died down.

“Do we put a specific dollar figure, no we don’t,” he said in response to a question about a discredited estimate of $60 billion worth of mineral riches, before redirecting to focus on how road access would help improve the living conditions of the remote Indigenous communities.

But another of those communities, Aroland First Nation, is not on board with the plan either.

They filed a request for Ottawa to intervene, as did the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada and the Osgoode Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic.

The federal environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, agreed to conduct a regional assessment on the Ring of Fire last month. He said Ottawa would need to consider potential adverse effects on climate change, fisheries and endangered species as well as a high likelihood of impacts on the rights of Indigenous people.

He said he would intend to carry out the assessment in partnership with Ontario.

Ugo Lapointe, the Canadian Program Coordinator at MiningWatch Canada said there is currently “a window of opportunity here to work with all affected First Nations and the feds and the province” in order to decide collectively where it makes sense to construct roads and which areas deserve more stringent protections, either to protect species or respect the wishes of specific First Nations communities.

Lapointe said there were also environmental concerns to take into account, including the range of sensitive caribou herds in the Ring of Fire region and in the path of the planned road. He said chromium processing, if it ever got to that point, is also a particularly carbon-intensive process.

Capital tough to come by

John Ing is a metals-focused investment dealer who is skeptical the road will ever get built. He also said it is a massive unknown just how much value can be extracted.

The head of Maison Placements Canada likened the efforts expended seeking to build a road to the Ring of Fire to the Plan Nord efforts of the Quebec government of Jean Charest.

“Plan Nord did, after it was built, spark exploration,” Ing said. “There were very few discoveries however.”

He said easier access to the region would help to encourage more exploration, but that it was by no means a cure-all.

“Mining’s a capital intensive business. Road access is undoubtedly a factor, but it’s really capital that is tough to get.”

“That’s not because of the road,” he said. “That’s because lots of money was spent looking around and not a lot was found.”

MiningWatch Canada’s Lapointe added that the market for chromium — which backers say is prevalent throughout the Ring of Fire — is saturated with existing supply and large amounts of known reserves that would last centuries.

He added that the main player seeking to develop the Ring of Fire, Noront Resources, is relying on an old feasibility study from 2012, when prices for nickel, copper, palladium and other minerals were significantly higher.

“It’s not looking good economically,” he said. “There’s been way too much hype, way too much speculation around the value of this deposit. Maybe it’s about time for our governments to take a more rational approach.”

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