Indigenous consultation is key to the Ring of Fire becoming Canada’s economic superpower

Many of the 30,000 attendees of the March 2024 Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada convention harbour a “wild desire” to extract the mineral riches of Canada’s $67 billion Ring of Fire, in the words of Johnny Cash’s well-known song of the same name.

While some might be attracted by the desire to make money, others could be driven by concern for our planet and the belief that the region’s minerals can help reduce carbon emissions and support a just energy transition.

As some Indigenous groups have pointed out, however, the construction of roads and mining in the Ring of Fire represents a significant disruption to traditional ways of life and fragile ecosystems.

Some environmental groups have argued that mining activities in the region could result in a net increase of carbon emissions due to the removal or severe degradation of the vital carbon sinks sustained by peat lands and trees.

Despite the significant economic and environmental impacts surrounding the development of the Ring of Fire, this focus overlooks another crucial issue: the potential for Indigenous/non-Indigenous conflict in northern Ontario.

Chief Rudy Turtle of Grassy Narrows First Nation speaks during a Toronto rally against the Ring of Fire in July 2023.

The importance of Indigenous treaties

Our recent study on the prospects for Indigenous/non-Indigenous conflict in relation to Québec’s Plan Nord has compelling parallels with Ontario’s Ring of Fire.

Both regions are located in the mineral-rich and ecologically sensitive northern reaches of the provinces that are home to numerous Indigenous Peoples.

Like Ontario, Québec’s Indigenous groups have a fraught history with government interventions and are often suspicious of plans to develop natural resources.

A grey-haired bearded man speaks into a microphone with the blue-and-green logo for Plan Nord beside him.
Philippe Couillard, Québec premier at the time, presents Le Plan Nord, his government’s strategy to develop its northern region, in April 2015 in Montréal.

Our study reveals that if an Indigenous group has signed a modern treaty, there is a reduced risk of conflict related to proposed resource developments since there’s less uncertainty surrounding land tenure rights. Given the fundamental importance of land to Indigenous Peoples, threats to these rights — perceived or real — represent an understandable source of grievance that can spark conflict.

Although there will likely be procurement of services from local Indigenous communities and companies in the Ring of Fire region, the vast majority of its development activities will attract non-Indigenous workers and businesses to the area.

Our study also demonstrates that an influx of non-Indigenous workers can produce tensions with Indigenous groups that can rapidly escalate and lead to contentious interventions by the RCMP.

Uncritical media coverage

Given the potential economic windfalls associated with the development of the Ring of Fire, it’s easy to assume support among local residents. Politicians at all levels have called for the rapid development of the region as part of a broader investment strategy to cast Canada as a critical minerals leader.

These political leaders highlight the dangers of climate change to encourage companies and consumers to embrace energy sources that reduce carbon emissions. In 2020, the Canadian government announced its Greening Government Strategy aimed at achieving net-zero operations by 2050.

Reducing carbon emissions is also a key element of Canada’s Critical Minerals Strategy.

Meanwhile, media coverage of political pronouncements regarding mineral supply chains is often uncritical.

Another recent study of ours reveals that media coverage in Canada in both French and English rarely includes the perspectives of Indigenous people. Instead, reporters prefer to focus on the more sensational aspects of roadblocks and standoffs, which tend to marginalize the position of Indigenous Peoples.

Little consideration is given to assessing the complex impacts of natural resource development projects on Indigenous communities.

Take the case of the quip by Ontario Premier Doug Ford that “you will see me on that bulldozer” to underscore his government’s pledge to build road access to the Ring of Fire.

A rotund man with slicked-back greyish blond hair sits in the cab of a bulldozer.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford at a construction site in Brampton as he started his re-election campaign in May 2022.

Although roads can certainly generate positive impacts for local communities (for example, greater mobility and connectivity; better access to public services such as health care; lower prices for consumer goods), they can also lead to negative outcomes (for example, they can degrade the natural environment, they’re expensive to build and they can serve as a route for criminal networks).

Roads also lead to greater inflows of people in these previously remote communities. Federal and provincial environmental impact assessments of the proposed Northern Road Link to the Ring of Fire are already underway, and there’s reason to believe that a regulatory green light could dramatically transform northern Ontario’s demographics — and thus increase probabilities for future conflict.

Three recommendations

What can be done to prevent conflict in the Ring of Fire? We propose three recommendations.

  1. Respect existing treaties with Indigenous communities in the region. Where appropriate, negotiate side agreements that align with modern legal approaches to land use and property rights, thereby reducing uncertainty. Canadian governments could justify the investment in political capital to secure these agreements with Indigenous groups given the importance they’ve placed on promoting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and reducing carbon emissions to facilitate a just energy transition.

  2. The Ontario government should begin a new round of consultations with Indigenous communities and stakeholders that are inclusive, transparent, extensive and responsive. The previous round of consultations were criticized for being rushed and perfunctory. Truly consultative engagement would reduce grievances and signal to the world that sub-national governments can be global leaders in forging positive relationships with Indigenous Peoples.

  3. Although the environmental impact of road construction is already mediated by regulatory impact assessment legislation, the effects of an influx of workers must be addressed. Federal and provincial governments — together with input from relevant Indigenous groups and municipalities — should revise existing urban planning and zoning by-laws so that hamlets and small towns that are sure to grow do so in an economically, socially, and politically sustainable fashion. Incorporating all levels of governments in producing thoughtful urban planning measures would go a long way toward mitigating the negative impacts associated with increased migration to the region.

Read more:
Canada’s environment minister is headed for trouble if Ottawa doesn’t correct course on the Ring of Fire

Critical minerals can serve as Canada’s superpower, generating economic benefits domestically and boosting its reputation as an environmental leader in the just energy transition.

But if Canada fails in the governance of the Ring of Fire, and ignores the real prospects for serious conflict around the projects, these critical minerals could become Canada’s kryptonite by jeopardizing reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and tarnishing its reputation abroad.

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