Yet another infrastructure plan is in the works for Ontario’s remote Ring of Fire region, this one for an infrastructure corridor consisting of a railway, power and a seasonal seaport in James Bay.
The big difference here is that the plan is being proposed by First Nations, namely the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council.
“This is going to be aboriginal-led,” said Mushkegowuk director of lands and resources Vern Cheechoo in an interview. “I know there are other plans in the region — the Ontario government with their corporation plan, we have Ontario Hydro with a grid plan, we have other groups that want to bring infrastructure into the region and we are one of the options. We feel we’re best situated for this.”
Mushkegowuk represents 10,000 people, including members of the Attawapiskat, Kashechewan, Fort Albany, Moose Cree, Taykwa Tagamou, Chapleau Cree and Missanabie Cree First Nations.
The council has started talks with the nine Matawa First Nations — whose territories are closest to the Ring of Fire — on working together.
Some of the previous infrastructure proposals, such as Cliffs Natural Resources’ (NYSE: CLF) proposal to build a 340 km, all-weather industrial road, proved controversial because of inadequate consultation.
“When looking at all these other plans … they don’t mention First Nations too much. All we heard was, yeah, there are going to be jobs, some economic opportunities, maybe a seat on the board, things like that,” Cheechoo says.
“We felt it was important that we play a big role in unlocking the opportunities in the Ring of Fire, the economic opportunities for all. We want to benefit from it, we want to be able to be quite involved with development. To us, it means a lot — it’s our territories, it’s our land, it’s our rivers, we don’t want to be in the back seat when all this development takes place.”
The plan is still just an idea: Cheechoo says the council is looking for $150,000 in capacity funding from government or industry to come up with a concept plan that would outline how to proceed.
Once funding is in place, information-gathering meetings with industry, government and infrastructure experts can take place.
The meetings are crucial to both shape the initiative and gain support for it.
“Industry is actually very interested in meeting with us, and that’s what we intend to do as part of building our concept and business case: meet with industry and meet with energy companies — Quebec Hydro and rail-related companies — for their expertise.”
Cheechoo says the group will also meet with mining companies.
“We hope to meet with Noront Resources and Cliffs at some point because we would need their support to say: ‘Yes, this is a good plan, this plan makes sense.’ So we have to make our case.”
Matawa First Nations
It’s not clear, however, whether Matawa First Nations — whose lands are closest to the Ring of Fire, and who are negotiating with the province over a suitable consultation process to develop the area — will support the Mushkegowuk proposal. In fact, the Matawa First Nations are developing a rival infrastructure plan.
Chief Peter Moonias of the Neskantaga First Nation, one of the Matawa member communities, attended a recent meeting of Matawa chiefs where Mushkegowuk Council made an initial presentation on their plan.
“The only thing I can tell you is that we did not agree with anything, we did not disagree and we didn’t give our consent,” Moonias said.
“We want to be in the driver’s seat on the Ring of Fire development. We have our own proposal that’s going to come forward, that’s what we are doing.”
Moonias said details would be announced when the plan is fully fleshed out.
While Matawa communities are not opposed to working with Mushegowuk, Moonias said that the council’s approach has so far been much like that of government and industry — involving Matawa communities almost as an afterthought.
As for the province, in an emailed statement, Minister of Northern Development and Mines Michael Gravelle said the government is aware of the Mushkegowuk proposal.
“We understand that Mushkegowuk have engaged Matawa-member First Nations on their proposal and we look forward to hearing more,” he said.
Gravelle also noted that the province is involved in negotiations with the Matawa-member First Nations.
“The Ring of Fire project is a complex undertaking and one that needs the input from aboriginal organizations, industry, municipalities and the federal government. Ontario has been — and remains — committed to working with First Nation communities as partners, to ensure they have the opportunity to shape and provide input into how the Ring of Fire development moves forward.”
However, it’s unclear how First Nations-led plans would work with the province’s own plans for co-ordinating and facilitating infrastructure development in the area.
In late August, the government established the Ring of Fire Infrastructure Development Corporation, which was first announced last November.
The corporation, based in Thunder Bay, is intended to take the lead on infrastructure and bring government, industry and First Nations interests together.
Initially, it has been set up with an interim four-member board of civil servants, but eventually First Nations and industry will also be represented.
The corporation will be tasked with deciding how to spend the $1 billion the government has committed to infrastructure in the Ring of Fire, and will oversee a feasibility report on transportation infrastructure in the region.
For now, its first job will be to bring First Nations, industry and federal government together by developing an agreement in principle that will outline each party’s participation in the corporation and the composition of the board.
While First Nations support may be a challenge, Noront Resources (TSXV: NOT; US-OTC: NOSOF), which is in the environmental permitting stage with its Eagle’s Nest high-grade nickel–platinum group metals project in the Ring of Fire, is on-board.
“It’s the right kind of model I think, to get some sort of a not-for-profit entity there that would build, maintain and operate infrastructure,” said Noront president and CEO Alan Coutts. “It’s a strategic development for Ontario’s future.”
In terms of energy, the council is eager to look at the possibility of bringing cheap power to the region across James Bay from Quebec.
The inspiration for the idea was the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, on the Lower Churchill River in Labrador, which will involve underwater transmission lines along part of its route to Nova Scotia.
Before it suspended work at Black Thor, Cliffs had proposed to build a smelter in Sudbury instead of locally because of the expense of power in the Ring.
In addition to finding funding and getting industry and government on the same page, Mushkegowuk Council also has to sell the concept to its member communities. Cheechoo sees that process taking place when council conducts a prefeasibility study on the proposed development based on the concept plan.
“We still have to get their approval, and that will be part of the prefeasibility study — to go into the communities and consult with the people,” he adds. “One of the pros that I see that’s strong is if we import power from Quebec and bring it across, we don’t have to touch our rivers in terms of damming rivers to build infrastructure for power into the region. I think that’s a big plus for us — the rivers would remain untouched.”
In the longer term, a Quebec connection could open up possibilities for more First Nation communities to have access to grid power, and to lower energy costs, Cheechoo says.
While he’s not sure if the plan will work in the end, Cheechoo says the council has to try. The Mushkegowuk chiefs have all asked for help to develop the economy, and if the plan works, it could mean a huge economic boost.
“Our late Grand Chief Stan Louttit, who passed away not too long ago, he told us when we look at developing the economy of the region, he said ‘think big,’ and this is what we feel that we’re doing — we’re thinking big and taking chances,” he says.
“We want to live comfortably and enjoy the comforts of life within the community. I genuinely believe that this could happen here with this kind of development, and we want to be able to control it and lead it for everyone.”
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