With a click of a mouse, mining interests have laid claim to more than 72,000 square kilometres of land in northern Ontario over the last five years. That’s an area close to twice the size of Switzerland.

Since 2018, it has been possible to stake a mineral claim online in Ontario by outlining an area on a digital map and paying a small fee. With the current push for critical minerals — needed for a variety of technologies — these mining claims have exploded, more than tripling claimed areas in five years.

The areas, claimed for rights to minerals that may lie beneath, are also the ancestral and current territories of Indigenous Peoples, who are not consulted under Ontario’s antiquated “free entry” mining laws.

Mining claims in 2018 (left) and mining claims in 2023 (right). Source: WCS Canada/Meg Southee

The British Columbia Supreme Court recently ruled this process, which automatically grants mineral rights without any consultation, is unconstitutional. Many First Nation communities in Ontario are making it clear they will resist mining activity if there is not adequate consultation. They are demanding free, prior, and informed consent from communities and have held protests at Queen’s Park demanding a meeting with the premier.

Only a fraction of mineral claims ever become active mines. The vast tracts of land and water covered by mining claims in northern Ontario have an uncertain and unproven economic future. However, these areas do have known cultural and natural value as food sources and cultural touchstones for Indigenous Peoples.

They serve as wildlife habitat, globally important carbon stores, and as the headwaters of ecologically intact, free-flowing rivers. But Ontario is the only jurisdiction in Canada that does not require environmental assessments for mines. That means it’s possible for land to be claimed without consultation and ultimately mined without a thorough evaluation of impacts or consideration of alternatives.

One contentious area for claims-staking is a region hundreds of kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay dubbed the “Ring of Fire” by mining companies. Claims continue to be staked in this region more than two decades after mineral exploration began, but mining will only be financially viable if transport corridors are built there.

Impact assessments are underway for sections of a proposed 400- to 500-kilometre road into a globally important, intact natural area, but governments and companies haven’t agreed on which should foot the multibillion-dollar bill.

Areas in northern Ontario being claimed for rights to critical minerals that may lie beneath ancestral and current territories of Indigenous Peoples, writes Constance O'Connor @WCS_Canada #IndigenousPeoples #CriticalMinerals #OntarioMining

The Ring of Fire is a region rich in peatlands. These mossy, water-logged ecosystems are important for storing carbon, which will be released into the atmosphere if peat soils are disturbed or changes occur to water levels, water flows or surface vegetation.

Analyses show that the minerals from the Ring of Fire are not needed for technologies that can help us reduce our climate impact, but disturbing and destroying the carbon-rich peatlands will mean Canada cannot meet its climate change commitments.

The federal environment commissioner is already questioning Canada’s ability to achieve its climate targets.

We do need minerals like the nickel found in the Ring of Fire, or the lithium and cobalt found in other areas of northern Ontario, to make the vital shift to green technologies.

However, we need to acquire them in a planned way, gathering evidence to make informed choices about the tradeoffs between environmental costs and potential benefits, and using forward-looking processes that respect Indigenous rights to consultation and consent.

Current assessment processes are too narrow to give us a good understanding of the ways climate change, industrial development and region-opening roads could interact to dramatically change the health and ecological integrity of this region.

We also need to invest in ways to better use and reuse minerals all around us, in products that can be recycled, in existing mining waste that can be reprocessed, and in areas that already have road access to get mineral commodities to market.

For example, there are already promising proposals for reclaiming minerals from waste at old mining sites and developing large, new mining projects in already-mined areas in northern Ontario.

Instead of working to weaken the provincial Mining Act, the Ontario government should be updating it to ensure mining in the province is meeting modern ethical and environmental standards. Instead of racing to court to try to create a temporary gap in protection while the federal Impact Assessment Act is revised after October’s Supreme Court ruling, Ontario should embrace a comprehensive regional assessment process to work with First Nation communities and, together, determine what development is acceptable for the Ring of Fire area and affected communities.

Most importantly, instead of racing ahead blindly to create massive climate and cultural impacts, the government should properly assess what is really at stake with mining in northern Ontario.

Constance O’Connor is a conservation scientist who leads WCS Canada’s research and conservation program in the Ontario Northern Boreal landscape. She is also an adjunct professor at Lakehead and Laurentian Universities. Her work focuses on understanding the cumulative impacts of climate change and development on freshwater fish and freshwater ecosystems, and working with decision-makers to bring evidence to planning, management, and policy.

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Is it just me, or are we not faced with a nightmarishly complicated situation in which every choice we make could have bad environmental consequences that will create unavoidable conflicts between First Nations’ Treaty rights and environmentalists pushing to move quickly to replace fossil fuels with green technologies?