Despite the Liberal government’s continued claims of how important it considers the Ring of Fire deposit in swampy northwestern Ontario, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce report released Feb. 20 tells a much different story.
The report’s 13-point plan to get the development on track is a to-do list of not-dones. Electricity rate agreements, handshakes with First Nations, road and rail infrastructure arrangements — items that are absolutely critical for any major resource project in Ontario to move forward, but are even more important when said project is hundreds of kilometres away from any major population centre.
And those are only three of the 13 points the chamber made in its report.
With so much left undone, for Sudbury MPP Rick Bartolucci (then Northern Development and Mines minister) to have announced a chromite refinery for Capreol nearly two years ago now seems decidedly premature.
The logistical challenges of mining in the remote muskeg 400 kilometres north of Thunder Bay are incredibly daunting. The area is environmentally sensitive and ecologically important. It is entirely landlocked, hundreds of kilometres from any real transportation or electrical infrastructure.
Because the James Bay Lowlands are, for all intents and purposes, one massive swamp, solid ground for rail or road beds is at a premium, crisscrossed with claims, trap lines and overlapping traditional Native territories.
First Nations communities in the area don’t want their lands fouled by unchecked development, and rightly so. And they deserve, more than anyone perhaps, to benefit from the cash and infrastructure development will bring — again, rightly so.
The Ring of Fire has the potential to reverse the near-Third-World conditions on many remote communities, bringing jobs, better incomes, cheaper food and, for the first time, a permanent connection to the outside world in the form of a road or rail line (which in itself will help generate more development), helping to stem the terrible tide of poverty, suicide and hopelessness that seems to infect so many isolated reserves.
These are massive challenges and yet, despite Liberal government rhetoric that the Ring of Fire is an historic find on par with Sudbury’s metal deposits, the province has provided little vision, let alone direction, for how development can and should proceed.
The chamber has provided the to-do list. It’s doing its part by attempting to lure the interest of south Ontario business owners. Now, it’s up to the province to start decorating the list with checkmarks of goals reached.
And with an election around the corner, the party that can get things moving stands to gain, particularly if the chamber report does as its intended and attracts the attention of southern business interests.
The Ontario chamber is not without its own rhetoric, though. Calling for the Ring of Fire to be made a national priority is a bit over the top.
But it does raise an interesting point. The James Bay Lowlands is uncharted territory. If there is one Ring of Fire, there might be several. That would make it a true national priority.
Estimates are the Ring could generate a $1 billion a year in economic activity and fuel 5,500 jobs. Big potatoes. If the chamber report does galvanize the province to act, who knows how many other big potatoes might be found.
But what other riches might be hidden beneath the muskeg will remain a mystery for now, because we are still aren’t up there. The to-do list has to come first. One step at a time.