New FedNor Minister Greg Rickford came to Sudbury on Friday to bring “a positive narrative” on the future of the Ring of Fire, the massive chromite find in northwestern Ontario that has huge economic potential for all of the North.
While progress has been slowed by political, economic and infrastructure issues, Rickford said he views the development as a legacy project that will succeed despite the obstacles.
One of the keys to success, he told a packed luncheon at Bryston's, is supporting skills training of First Nations communities in the area so the benefits and opportunities for everyone involved are maximized. To that end, the federal government has announced almost $10.4 million in funding for two First Nations training programs in the last week.
That includes almost $6 million for the Ring of Fire Aboriginal Training Alliance, which, in cooperation with Confederation College in Thunder Bay, will train 260 people for a number of mining-related jobs. Rickford said the amount of money is less important than the purpose it serves.
“I'd like to change the narrative around the absolute amount of dollars,” he told the luncheon, which was put on by the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce.
“It's not about giving money. This is about ensuring young First Nations people have an opportunity to go to a college or to a skills training facility with a job in the line of sight.”
Rickford became Minister of State for Science and Technology, and FedNor, in a cabinet shuffle last month. Prime Minister Stephen Harper also made the Kenora MP responsible for the Ring of Fire.
U.S.-based Cliffs Natural Resources, which has the rights to much of the deposit, announced last year that a $1.8 billion chromite smelter would be built in a site near Capreol. The announcement prompted protests from First Nations communities near the ore body, many of whom said they wouldn't support the project unless the smelter was built there.
When asked after his speech Friday about the smelter issue, Rickford said he wasn't interested in focusing on the negative.
“I'm not going to get involved in past disagreements,” he said. “I'm going to say we're setting the tone for all of our investments in the Ring of Fire, for example the ones I made in Thunder Bay yesterday. They are organic. They derive from the constituents who are intended or contemplated to benefit the most directly.
“I think it's that kind of politics of collaboration at the municipal, provincial, federal and with First Nations governments that needs to take place.”
After pushing back the start up date for the smelter to 2017 from 2015, Cliffs announced in June it was suspending work in Capreol, citing problems dealing with government bureaucracy at the federal and provincial level. When asked about those issues, Rickford said his government has a plan to move forward and that's what they're focusing on.
“As I said earlier, as we continue to focus on a positive narrative for the Ring of Fire, there will be lessons along the way and that was one of them,” he said, of the dispute over the location of the smelter. “Obviously, the lesson we would take away there is we have to take all the steps necessary to ensure that when we make announcements, they are consulted and collaborated with all our stakeholders -- First Nations communities, other levels of government.
“There are very good reasons why certain things should go in certain places and we'll continue to work with our stakeholders to ensure that that's what transpires.”
In his speech at the chamber luncheon, Rickford said mining exports are key to Canada's economy, totalling $93 billion in Canada last year alone. His government is committed to ensuring projects like the Ring of Fire succeed in an “environmentally responsible” way, he said.
“To steal a phrase, mining matters,” he said. “Our government is making it a priority to put the conditions necessary in place for these communities to be full participants in this legacy project, the Ring of Fire.”
Everyone who stands to gain should work together, he said, so the benefits of the chromite discovery are maximized.
“We have to show that we, as all levels of government; we, as industry partners and business, civic leaders, people involved in training and education, have to engage in an exercise that I have termed the politics of collaboration,” Rickford said.
He said Minister of Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle is a friend, and he has met with the Thunder Bay MPP since he became minister to discuss ways of combining the ministries' resources when it makes sense.
Rickford also created a senior policy adviser position in his office “who is exclusively focused on -- guess what, folks -- Northern Ontario, FedNor and the Ring of Fire.
“More importantly, that person is from, guess where? Northern Ontario.”
While acknowledging that the challenges seem huge, he said the opportunity is too great for the Ring of Fire not to succeed.
“We all have a stake in it -- we have a huge opportunity,” he said. “We stand on the precipice of greatness.”