Ring of Fire mining prospects empower Canada’s most disenfranchised natives

MARTEN FALLS, Ont. – For Christmas, Chief Eli Moonias received a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey autographed by Wendel Clark.

His remote northern Ontario community of Marten Falls got 50 turkeys and a visit from Santa, laden with children’s gifts.

And in March, the 61-year-old chief will be granted his wish of travelling to China ­– if he can get his passport in time.

They’re all gifts from mining companies who need the chief’s support to develop what could be a world-class base-metal discovery.

Moonias’s community sits next to what has become known as the Ring of Fire. Marten Falls is a small, fly-in reserve — just three streets of houses for about 300 people at the junction of the Albany and Ogoki rivers. It’s in the middle of one of the only forests in the world that has never been touched by industry, an area that hosts six of Canada’s biggest rivers.

When trapping for furs lost its lustre several decades ago, nothing replaced it in Marten Falls.

Unless the residents are working for the band office or a government-run social service, they’re almost certainly unemployed — and more often than not, addicted to prescription painkillers at the expense of putting food on the table for their families.

Never have they felt more empowered.

“If you don’t reassure me, that’s when I say No,” Moonias says in an interview at the band’s resource office, wallpapered with maps and surveys.

About 130 kilometres to the north of the reserve, multinational miner Cliffs Natural Resources wants to develop a huge chromite mine to make a key ingredient in stainless steel. The firm brought Marten Falls the Christmas turkeys.

Next door, Toronto-based Noront Resources wants to mine nickel and other base metals. Noront employees chipped together to bring the Leafs shirt, Santa and an entertainment troupe of breakdancers.

Co-operation from First Nations is essential for both companies, and for anyone else wanting to do business in the remote James Bay lowlands.

“The leverage is there because it’s our territory,” Moonias says bluntly. “The industry needs us on side to go ahead.”

Demand for commodities is expected to stay relatively strong over the coming 20 years, reflecting the growth of the middle class in emerging markets, especially China. But the super-cycle can’t last forever, so the companies want to get their permits and workforces lined up within a few years.

Politically, the stakes are even higher. The Ontario government is dealing with a shrunken manufacturing base. The province wants to diversify its economy and envisions tens of thousands of jobs from many mines in the James Bay lowlands.

Ottawa is equally invested. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made “responsible resource development” a central tenet of his government, completely overhauling legislation and government operations to spur investment in extractive industries.

At the same time, public pressure to improve the standard of living on reserves is soaring. Native activists are taking to the streets to demand a larger say in natural resource development and government policy-making.

Harper’s reputation depends on him pulling it off. He has just put cabinet minister Tony Clement in charge of the Ring of Fire file to make sure it happens.

For the first time in modern history, some of the most isolated, destitute First Nations communities in Canada have something that the rest of the world wants. Badly.

“This is the only chance we will have to make history right,” says Charlie Okeese, a counsellor and former chief of the Fort Hope First Nation, a community larger than Marten Falls but farther away from the prime mining targets.

“If we don’t get this right, we can never correct it.”

First Nations don’t have an official veto over resource development. But as controversy over the Northern Gateway pipeline to the West Coast and opposition to some oilsands development shows, winning their consent makes for a much smoother ride.

For Noront, the Christmas presents are a gesture of goodwill from the company’s employees to possible future employees. It’s a fraction of the social outreach Noront has taken on to promote education, training and mining, says Kaitlyn Ferris, the company’s corporate responsibility manager, as she wrapped up a Christmas trip to Webequie, Ont., another aboriginal community.

So far in the Ring of Fire, no one has issued a flat-out No. But aboriginal communities haven’t said Yes either.

The Webequie First Nation is probably closest to saying Yes, although it didn’t start out that way.

“We’ve always lived peacefully in a remote community. There was no industry. Suddenly, there was a staking rush in our community,” said Chief Cornelius Wabasse, attending a Christmas feast for band members living in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Dozens of exploration companies flooded to the area about five or six years ago, staking claims, setting up camps, even building airstrips without informing First Nations who consider the vast land theirs.

After the companies were reined in by the Ontario government, Webequie had time to take a deep breath.

“At first we didn’t want them here. But as time went by and we understood, we started to realize there may be opportunities,” Wabasse said.

Given the unemployment and severe social challenges of his reserve, Webequie First Nation needs to give serious consideration to anyone who may bring a solution, the chief said.

That does not mean a green light for the miners, at least not yet.

“We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to fit into this.”

On the other side of the spectrum, the community of Neskantaga has spoken out against the miners. Last summer, Chief Peter Moonias said he would sacrifice his own life if need be, to block construction of a bridge over the Attawapiskat River.

But he was opposing the proposed route of a road to the mining site and the lack of consultation with First Nations, and has not opposed the mines themselves.

In Marten Falls, band members are on the fence, assuming they will see substantial economic benefits but worried about the environmental effects of mining.

“I feel OK with it,” says Paul Achneepineskum, a 61-year-old father of 12 and a band counsellor in Marten Falls.

He was actually born in the Ring of Fire and spent his childhood trapping and hunting for years in that area. He is wistful for that lifestyle — but doesn’t wish it on his children.

“I think about it sometimes,” he says, hesitating. “The reason I think about it is, we were always hungry when we were kids.”

The Ring of Fire won’t do him much good, he says. But if his children can figure out a way to get a decent education, then the mining development should help them.

Asked if he has a Christmas wish, he says: “I want all our children to finish their education and go work in the Ring of Fire area.”

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Wendel Clark’s first name.