First Nations to submit environmental assessment plan for final road linking Ring of Fire to Ont. highways

First Nations to submit environmental assessment plan for final road linking Ring of Fire to Ont. highways

by Sue Jones
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As interest heats up in the mineral-rich Ring of Fire in remote northern Ontario, two First Nations say they’re ready to submit the final terms of reference for an environmental assessment (EA) on the last of three roads that would connect the area to provincial highway networks.

Bruce Achneepineskum

Marten Falls First Nation Chief Bruce Achneepineskum said creating year-round road access will improve living conditions in his remote community in northern Ontario. (Northern Road Link)

As interest heats up in the mineral-rich Ring of Fire in remote northern Ontario, two First Nations say they’re ready to submit the final terms of reference for an environmental assessment (EA) on the last of three roads that would connect the area to provincial highway networks.

The terms of reference will lay out the work plan — including the scope and issues to be considered — for the EA on the Northern Road Link, a proposed two-lane, all-weather road. It’s part of a proposal, along with the Marten Falls Community Access Road and the Webequie Supply Road, to build 450 kilometres of all-season roadway through the boreal forest and swampy peat lands of northern Ontario, creating access to the Ring of Fire. The terms of reference for the other two roads were approved by the province last year.

Northern Road Link

The map, provided by the Northern Road Link project team, shows the three proposed all-weather roads connecting remote First Nations to the provincial highway network. The Marten Falls Community Access Road is purple, the Northern Road Link is striped, and the Webequie Supply Road is in red. (Supplied by Stephanie Ash)

The mineral deposit, located more than 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, holds a range of critical minerals, including those used in electric vehicle (EV) batteries and energy storage systems. Premier Doug Ford has linked development in the Ring of Fire to his plans to create an EV manufacturing hub in southern Ontario.

Leaders with Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations who are heading the EA processes on all three road projects say year-round access will improve living conditions in their communities.

“This is a move forward for us in terms of economic reconciliation, alleviating the conditions in the community and the poverty levels that we have faced in the decades past,” Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum said Thursday during a news conference with Ford and Northern Development and Mining Minister Greg Rickford.

Doug Ford Greg Rickford

Premier Doug Ford and Mining and Northern Development Minister Greg Rickford, at a news conference Thursday, welcomed news that the terms of reference for the Northern Road Link project were ready for submission. (Government of Ontario)

The terms of reference have not been publicly released, but Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse said they lay out a comprehensive process that will generate information needed to guide any development in their homelands.

“We are very careful with our environmental stewardship responsibilities so that our traditional territories, sacred sites and our cultural way of life are protected in the near future. At the same time, we have to balance our community’s needs for economic opportunities, such as job creation, business development and partnership.”

Development faces opposition

Still, the EA processes and development in the Ring of Fire have been contested by other First Nations and environmental organizations in the area.

Neskantaga recently filed a lawsuit against Ontario, asking the court to provide “ground rules” on how the province should consult and accommodate Indigenous communities that are in a state of crisis due to compounding issues of boil-water advisories, housing shortages, poor health outcomes and the pandemic.

The federal government is also conducting a comprehensive regional impact assessment into the Ring of Fire. But that process has faced opposition, with five First Nations calling the draft terms of reference for that assessment “fundamentally flawed in their scope, purpose and legitimacy,” and demanding equal partnership in the process.

Twelve environmental and civil society groups also sent a letter to Ottawa in March criticizing the draft terms of reference, saying it “downplays the impacts of massive industrial activity on globally significant wetlands and watersheds … and does not take into account the region’s ecologically integrity.”

The region is still some time away from seeing the actual construction of any roads, as the EAs are expected to take several years.

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