He said the government met its commitment to establish a development corporation for the Ring of Fire chromite deposits in Northwestern Ontario 60 days after Premier Kathleen Wynne's throne speech, on July 3.
An interim board made up of four senior bureaucrats, and based in Thunder Bay, is expected to bring First Nations, the public and private sectors together to create partnerships and facilitate investment decisions in strategic transportation infrastructure for the Ring of Fire.
Those four civil servants are: Bill Thornton, assistant deputy minister for Northern Development and Mines; Rob Dowler, assistant deputy minister with the Cabinet office; Linda McAusland, assistant deputy minister of Transportation; and Ehren Cory, executive vice-president of Infrastructure Ontario.
Gravelle said a fifth representative, from the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, could be added to the interim board.
But critics have said the announcement has not resulted in any forward momentum at all regarding the Ring of Fire, a series of chromite and base metal deposits expected to be worth $60-billion.
“We're no further ahead today than we were four or five years ago,” said Sudbury MPP Joe Cimino. “There's been work in the last few years to communicate with the First Nations, but not from day one.”
Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli, the Progressive Conservatives' finance critic, said he was also disappointed with Thursday's announcement.
“Today marks the sixth time in nine months the government has announced the Ring of Fire development corporation,” Fedeli said in a statement. “Yet despite that considerable length of time, key industry, First Nations and Ontario Northland still haven’t been invited to the table.”
Gravelle said the interim board will lay the groundwork for future discussions around how the province's promised $1 billion for Ring of Fire infrastructure will be invested.
“We are now in a position where we can formalize discussions between the potential partners and determine which partners are in a position to sign on in a more formal way through an agreement in principle,” he said.
The Matawa First Nations, whose territory is in the Ring of Fire region, are about to enter into the second phase of a regional process, said Gravelle, where they will discuss their own involvement with the development corporation.
Former Ontario premier Bob Rae will represent First Nations in those discussions, while former Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci will negotiate on behalf of the province.
Criticism aside, the CEO of a junior miner with several stakes in the Ring of Fire said he is encouraged by today's announcement.
“It's important to recognize that Premier Wynne gave herself a very short window within which to do this,” said Frank Smeenk, president and CEO of KWG Resources. “They've actually exceeded expectations. That's the first time we've seen somebody beat the deadline.”
Smeenk said he was especially happy to see the interim board will be overseeing an economic and technical baseline feasibility report on transportation infrastructure for the Ring of Fire.
He said the large number of suggested infrastructure proposals for the region, including two proposed east-west transportation corridors, a few north-south proposals and additional plans for transportation infrastructure or pipelines will need to be studied carefully.
“I've come to understand that there's an opportunity to build what we could call a logging road,” Smeenk added.
The road would serve First Nations communities in the region by connecting the remote communities of Pickle Lake and Marten Falls.
But Smeenk said he was also getting impatient with the government's slow pace of progress on the Ring of Fire file.
“The bad news is, 'When will this horse drink?'” he said.