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Ontario’s road to the Ring of Fire will undergo a federal environmental impact assessment.
The Northern Road Link Project, a highway leading to the region in northern Ontario, is part of a larger push to develop mining projects in the area and capitalize on critical minerals like copper, chromite and nickel that play a vital role in the energy transition.
The federal Impact Assessment Agency (IAA) this week said an assessment was necessary for the Northern Road Link Project because of possible “adverse effects within federal jurisdiction, including potential effects on fish and fish habitat, migratory birds, and changes to the health, social, and economic conditions of Indigenous peoples.”
Currently, the proponents responsible for the road are Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations, both of which support development in the region. If built, the Northern Road Link Project will connect the proposed Marten Falls Community Access Road with the Webequie Supply Road, giving both communities road access all year round. Currently, they only have access to the south by air or on winter roads from January until the spring thaw.
However, other nations, like Attawapiskat, Neskantaga and Fort Albany, have voiced concerns over the road and mining developments.
Each of the three roads — the Northern Link Road, Marten Falls Community Access Road and Webequie Supply Road — will undergo different impact assessments. The Ring of Fire region will also undergo a separate impact assessment for its mineral deposits, which does not include or duplicate the ongoing assessments of the different roads, according to documents produced by the federal government for a 2022 information session. Critics disagree with how the IAA requires various Ring of Fire projects to undergo different assessments.
In written comments responding to the Northern Road Link Project’s initial description, Chief Elizabeth Kataquapit from Fort Albany First Nation disagreed with the IAA’s outline.
“Not only does this project-splitting limit adequate consideration of overall impacts on the lands, waters, natural resources, communities, climate and Indigenous rights, etc., but it significantly increases the regulatory and consultation burden on small communities with limited capacity, such as Fort Albany First Nation,” Chief Kataquapit said in the comment.
Anna Baggio, conservation director at Wildlands League, argues each road can’t be assessed in a vacuum. She believes the entire region needs a single assessment. Every road begets more roads, tourism that can lead to overfishing and industry development that can lead to even more mines, she says.
If built, the Northern Road Link Project will connect the proposed Marten Falls Community Access Road with the Webequie Supply Road, giving both communities road access. But carbon-rich peatlands are housed on the surrounding nation's territories.
It’s also unclear if Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations will continue to be responsible for the Northern Road Link Project. The initial project description stated there are ongoing discussions about who will ultimately own the road and be responsible for its ownership and maintenance. If there is a change, everything agreed upon in the impact assessments will be handed to the new proponent — a company or organization that carries out the project.
Without clarity over proponents, it’s unclear if commitments in the impact assessment will be followed or if the new proponent will have to be evaluated, Baggio said. In the past, the road’s proponent was listed as Noront, a company bought out late last year by the Australian mining company Wyloo Metals. It’s still unclear if Wyloo or Ontario could become future proponents of the Northern Road Link Project.
However, the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada told Canada's National Observer that conditions set out in a Minister’s Decision Statement, if a project is approved, are legally binding and stay with the project regardless if the proponent changes.
Earlier this week, the Globe and Mail reported that Wyloo Metals’ billionaire owner, Andrew Forrest, warned the feds that the viability of the region’s development was at risk because of “red tape” associated with Canada’s regulation and consultation process.
Baggio said the phrase “red tape” should raise red flags. She believes Canada needs to hold the line on impact assessments and Indigenous consultations, which aren’t as stringent in Western Australia.
When anybody starts talking about red tape, that means the environment gets shafted and the mining industry can shortcut proper consultations with Indigenous communities, Baggio explained.
“Red tape is a very, very dangerous way of describing all the important things that need to happen.”
Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative