The appointment of Kenora MP Greg Rickford as minister responsible for FedNor and the Ring of Fire is another sign of the importance upper levels of government place on developing the major chromite discovery.
And Dick Destefano, executive director of the Sudbury Area Mining Supply and Services Association, says it's a sign of the growing political influence of northwestern Ontario.
Rickford replaces Parry Sound-Muskoka MP Tony Clement in a major cabinet shuffle that was unveiled Monday by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on his twitter account.
In all, Harper added eight new faces to his cabinet of 39 ministers, the largest federal cabinet since Brian Mulroney's government in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Rickford's appointment comes months after Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne named Thunder Bay MPP Michael Gravelle as minister of Northern Development and Mines, replacing longtime Sudbury MPP Rick Bartolucci, who is retiring.
Both appointments reflect new realities in Northern Ontario, Destefano said.
“The focus is not on northeastern Ontario at all, it's on northwestern Ontario and the Ring of Fire and it's potential value,” he said. “From a political point of view, it's seen as the area where the next major development is going to take place in Ontario.”
There has also been a major shakeup at Cliffs Natural Resources, where president and CEO Joseph Carrabba is stepping down, along with other top executives. While the company has said it still plans to build a $1.8-billion smelter in Capreol to process ore from the Ring of Fire, Destefano said the turmoil raises a lot of questions.
“I'm of the belief that it will be 2020 at the earliest” before Cliffs begins extracting ore from its chromite discovery," he said. “And they say it's confirmed that it's still Capreol.”
Thunder Bay is pushing for the ore to be shipped through its port, rather than through a rail line to Capreol, Destefano said.
“Obviously, that will put (political) pressure on them to move the whole project to Thunder Bay,” he said. “There's no question that's going to be a reality.
“The presence of two ministers, one at the provincial level, one at the federal level, both from northwestern Ontario, their focus will be satisfying their constituents as best they can, even though FedNor has a mandate to provide for all of Northern Ontario.”
Requests from Northern Life to interview Rickford weren't answered by deadline, but Nickel Belt MP Claude Gravelle said removing Clement from the post can only be a positive step. There's no reason to think that ministers from the northwest will work against Capreol, he said.
“I think the decision to have the smelter in Capreol is a done deal,” he said. “I can't see that changing ... But you never know in politics.”
With the entire process stalled, Gravelle said a new minister who knows the area well can, hopefully, get the process back on track.
“Ever since Tony Clement was appointed responsibility for the Ring of Fire things have been going downhill,” Gravelle said. “Hopefully this will kick start negotiations again.”
And Jonathan Laderoute, policy and communications manager with Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, said it just makes sense to have someone from that part of the province focused on the Ring of Fire.
“But in terms of being able to work with the northeast, I don't think a lot is going to change,” Laderoute said. “All areas have to participate, and that includes the northeast.”