FORT HOPE FIRST NATION, Ont. – The people at Cliffs Natural Resources have been around, and know the challenges of mining in difficult conditions.
But this is a first: the multinational has had to extend deadlines on its environmental assessment process in northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire because of a suicide crisis.
Another young man took his life a couple of weeks ago, prompting a spiral of despair in Neskantaga First Nation. Twenty young people in the small community of about 300 were put on suicide watch. The chief and council went to ground.
And the chances of them completing their feedback on time for Cliff’s environmental assessment terms of reference faded to zero.
“Neskantaga asked for some extra time on that, and given the circumstances, we figured that was right to do,” Bill Boor, Cliffs’ senior vice-president of global ferroalloys, said in a telephone interview.
“We’ve been clear with people that we’re going to be the operator of this project long-term, assuming it goes forward. We plan to be there for a long, long time.”
“We kind of balance our interest in holding to a schedule with a very high level of interest in making sure we’re doing it right. And it’s not to our benefit to be solely schedule driven.”
It’s a small delay, but it comes at a time when Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made it a priority to ramp up the pace of mining and energy extraction.
Since the last federal budget, thousands of civil servants in a wide array of departments have been consumed with Harper’s “responsible resource development” principle. The bureaucrats have taken to calling it “R2D” for short, the confluence of big money and political power.
The policy aims to attract $650 billion in investment to quickly open up Canada’s oilsands, gas reserves and mining sectors to the world, making it easier for corporations to extract natural resources as long as they do it responsibly.
The policy dedicates some extra funding toward consultation with First Nations. But it doesn’t anticipate suicide crises.
In the sparsely populated Ring of Fire, where Cliffs and other companies are hoping to set up world-class mining operations that would create thousands of jobs over decades, suicide rates are among the highest in Canada. They’re the most tragic sign of the poverty, lack of employment and sexual abuse that First Nations face in the area on a daily basis.
“We have layers and layers of trauma,” says Liz Atlookan, the health director in Fort Hope, the largest community in the Ring of Fire area. “Just years and years of grief, conflict situations, deaths, suicides.”
Fort Hope, she says, is coming out the other side, slowly.
The Ojibway community of 1,400 built along the Albany River declared a state of emergency in 2010 because of the widespread addiction to prescription painkillers such as OxyContin.
Food disappeared from the cupboards of families’ homes as addicts spent hundreds of dollars for just one pill to crush and inject.
But health workers were able to set up a local treatment program and have been permitted to administer suboxone, a replacement drug that helps addicts wean themselves off oxy over the course of many months.
The treatment is accompanied by life-skills training and job placements, with the goal of replacing the emptiness with productive work.
“A lot of them are working, and they feel good. They have a more meaningful life, and they’re busy,” says Atlookan.
Still, progress is incremental and not as quick as she had hoped.
“We’re hoping we’ve had a turnaround.”
In nearby Marten Falls, the health director has none of the optimism of Fort Hope. When asked if the local adults would be ready to start taking jobs associated with mining activity, the usually taciturn Evelyn Baxter explodes: “What planet are you from?”
Almost everyone on her reserve from teenagers on up is addicted to prescription painkillers, she says, and she has seen addicts as young as eight or nine.
The youngsters who are not addicted are rebelling, she said.
“You see the retaliation of the younger generation. The behaviour is out of control at times. They know what’s going on.”
Despite having no formal healthcare training, Baxter is a key member of Marten Falls’ first-response team and spends many a night rushing to her neighbours’ houses to deal with overdoses, suicide threats and addicts struggling with withdrawal. By day, she is engaged in the unrewarding experience of prodding sleepy, forgetful recovering addicts into learning life skills and attempting to work nine-to-five.
“It’s like trying to teach a little kid to eat and sleep and walk again,” she said. Every day she starts from scratch because her employees have forgotten everything from the day before.
“The younger generation doesn’t even know how to hunt. It’s the side effect. They don’t think,” she said.
Despite the powerful push for speedy investment and development that flows from the federal government, in the Ring of Fire time may actually be on the First Nations’ side.
Cliffs Natural Resources is not yet completely sure it can go ahead with the project. Its start date of 2016 is up in the air, mainly because the company still has a long way to go in the environmental assessment process, and because money is a big issue.
In order to finance the huge chromite development, the company needs cash flow from its other operations, namely iron ore. Prices are in the basement right now, however, and so Cliffs is in no rush to spend money it can’t find.
“2016 is a challenging schedule. We think it’s achievable, but it’s subject to all kinds of milestones,” said Boor.
In the First Nations communities, leaders say they see a growing albeit tentative willingness to confront the social challenges and at least take a taste of the modern economy.
Down the street from Atlookan’s clinic in Fort Hope, Phillip Wapoose lives in a crumbling house with his ill wife Lizzie, his 13-year-old son Leroy and his 31-year-old daughter Liza. They’ve also taken in a baby, Cleo, from their extended family for a while.
Cleo is tied to a papoose, with Lizzie rocking her gently from her recline on the couch that shares the tiny living room with a giant wood stove and three large buckets of fresh pike, pickerel and muskie.
Around them, the signs of poverty are everywhere. Laundry is strung across the ceiling, the walls are pocked with holes of all sizes, most of the floor tiles are missing or peeling away, signs of mould lurk in the corners, a dirty diaper lies in a ball on the ground.
Wapoose wants his children to find a way out of the tough conditions and into the world of paid employment, and he sees a potential answer in the Ring of Fire.
“I just want them to hire the young people,” he said.
Struggling First Nations can plead and protest about their social conditions as much as they like, but the federal government is never going to come up with enough funding to turn around communities like Fort Hope, says band councillor Charlie Okeese.
“So what do you do? We look to resource development.”
The challenges are daunting but not insurmountable, adds fellow councillor Andy Yesno.
“We have a lot of social problems. For the idleness, for the lack of anything to do,” he says.
“I don’t think anyone is quite ready to go into a mine, but they have to learn. That’s what we’re working on.”