Ontario premier expresses optimism on Ring of Fire after meeting Harper

OTTAWA – Premier Kathleen Wynne has emerged from a meeting with Stephen Harper satisfied that she has the prime minister’s ear on a massive mineral development in northern Ontario.

“I’m more optimistic than I was before I went in to the meeting that we’ll be able to work together,” Wynne told The Canadian Press in a brief interview late Thursday.

The Liberal premier has repeatedly expressed frustration with what she termed a lack of engagement by a federal Conservative government that has strongly supported resource developments elsewhere in Canada — particularly Alberta’s oil sands.

But with a mineral-rich area in remote northwestern Ontario known as the Ring of Fire facing its own infrastructure challenges, the Ontario government has been trying to force a commitment from the feds.

“This is a project of national interest in the same way that there have been projects in Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador that are projects of national interest,” Wynne told reporters just prior to her meeting with the prime minister.

“We’re looking for engagement.”

Relations weren’t helped when Wynne delivered a letter to Harper on Nov. 6 that listed up to $2.25 billion in transportation and industrial infrastructure needed in the remote region some 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.

“We expect your government to come to the table with matching funds,” the premier’s letter flatly asserted.

Greg Rickford, the northern Ontario Conservative MP Harper has tagged with shepherding the Ring of Fire, complained Thursday that Wynne’s letter was the first the federal government had heard of a proposed development corporation to build infrastructure.

“I’m confident that today’s meeting will reflect a willingness to be more collaborative,” Rickford said before the tete-a-tete.

A couple of hours later, Wynne suggested progress.

“Definitely, we have each other’s ear on this,” she said of the prime minister.

“He and I agree that this is a very important project. He and I also agree that infrastructure is critical, and infrastructure that will be directly associated with the development of the Ring of Fire but also infrastructure that will serve the needs of First Nations and other communities in the north.”

Much of the difficulty has been over debate about whether a dedicated resource railway into the wilderness is the best option or a road that would also help connect a number of isolated First Nations communities in the Ring of Fire.

Ensuring a power grid to serve both industry and those communities is also part of the costly equation.

Wynne described it as “a huge and shared responsibility to work — all of us — government to government to government,” including the province, the feds and First Nations.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver recently revealed his department alone will spend about $40 million this fiscal year advertising the federal government’s “Responsible Resource Development” policy at home and abroad.

The overt focus of the taxpayer-funded ad campaign is Canada’s oil and gas and pipeline industries, a priority for the Harper government.

To that end, the prime minister appointed a special representative for “West Coast Energy Infrastructure,” and Doug Eyford’s report was delivered Thursday morning in Vancouver.

Eyford wrote in the report that Alberta and British Columbia “perceive the federal system as comparatively leaden or indifferent and are working together, without Canada, on matters within federal jurisdiction.”

And he struck a broader note on Ottawa’s role in assisting resource projects across the country.

“It is critical for Canada to become more involved and demonstrate leadership in its relations with Aboriginal groups, industry, and provincial governments,” says the report.

The development corporation the Ontario government has pitched is designed to bring all the stakeholders in the Ring of Fire together to address critical needs in getting the project off the ground.

Last month, a huge player in the Ring of Fire, U.S.-based Cliffs Natural Resources, announced it was indefinitely postponing its proposed $3.3-billion chromite operation due to lack of agreement on transportation corridors.

In the wake of the Cliffs announcement, Harper appeared to brush off the Ring of Fire as a matter of provincial jurisdiction.

Wynne appeared satisfied Thursday after meeting Harper that Ottawa is prepared to come to the table.

“He’s open to considering the notion of a development corporation and that was the engagement I was looking for,” said the premier.

“No dollar numbers thrown around, none at all.”