The prospect of a road into the resource-rich Ring of Fire area in northern Ontario has been on the drawing board for 15 years, but the project appears to finally have some legs as the Conservative government is partnering with two First Nations communities to move a northern link of the project along.
“We’re working with First Nations partners to move this project forward and build legacy infrastructure that will bring economic prosperity to the region,” Energy, Northern Development and Mines Minister Greg Rickford said in a statement to Daily Commercial News.
“Our government made a commitment to open-up the incredible resources located in the Ring of Fire, and we’re keeping that promise.”
He said the previous Liberal government’s approach to the project included a decade of talk, with more than $20 million invested and no shovels in the ground.
“That’s why we are taking a fresh approach. To date, we have signed memorandum of agreements with Marten Falls and Webique First Nations, to move forward on building road infrastructure in the region.
“This is about more than just a road or a mine. We are building a corridor to prosperity that will improve the quality of life for First Nations communities by providing better access to economic opportunities, health care, education and housing supports.”
The Ring of Fire region, which lies about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay and covers an area of 5,000 square kilometres, represents one of the most promising mineral development opportunities in over a century, with deposits of chrome, nickel-copper-platinum group elements and other minerals.
The province figures the area has the potential to sustain up to 5,500 jobs annually across Ontario.
The first leg of the road project, dubbed the southern link from Aroland to Marten Falls, had been announced earlier.
Consultations are now under way for an environmental assessment (EA). Construction of that link is expected to be two years away.
Recently, the province also signed a deal with Marten Falls First Nation and Webequie First Nation to start the process for the environmental assessment, planning and construction of the second leg of the road, known as the Northern Road Link, that would connect the Marten Falls access road in the south to the proposed Webequie Supply Road in the north, enabling both communities to access the region west of James Bay.
The link would be a two-lane, all-weather, gravel access road with water crossings, built to a standard that could accommodate both passenger and commercial vehicles. It would form the final portion of a north-south corridor to benefit local communities and increase investment potential in the Ring of Fire region.
A spokesperson for the energy ministry said in a statement that the near-term focus is to initiate an EA for the second leg and support Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations as they work through the process.
An EA is a requirement to go ahead on the project and often takes a couple of years to complete.
The work will require federal investment and Ontario has also sent a request to the federal government, seeking an equal cost-sharing arrangement to enable Ring of Fire development.
Given that the proposed Northern Road Link is early in the environmental assessment process, the ministry spokesperson said it would be speculative and premature to outline any estimated costs to build the road.
There had been rumblings that the project could be derailed by an announcement in late February by Ottawa that it was ordering a full regional assessment of the Ring of Fire area under Bill C-69.
Although federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the EA would be carried out in full partnership with the Ontario government, Rickford received no advance notice of the move and was blindsided.
The spokesperson for the energy ministry says plans to undertake a regional assessment are a federal decision and the northern link project should not be affected.
“The federal government has indicated that a regional assessment will not impact federal impact assessment timelines for the two environmental assessments currently under way and have advised the proponents of the two projects.”
Jean-Ridel Basigura, communications advisor for the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC), confirmed that the federal government’s regional assessment will not affect timelines for the impact assessments of the two road projects.
He said the IAAC anticipates future road infrastructure and mining development activities in the Ring of Fire area and a regional assessment is being done to inform and contribute to the effectiveness and efficiency of future planning.
The IAAC plans to work with the province, federal authorities, non-government organizations, Indigenous groups and the public and provide a report in the fall.
Marten Falls First Nation Chief Bruce Achneepineskum said there’s still a ways to go before the projects get off the ground but when they’re built the links will have far-reaching impacts for the communities as they’ll provide access to proposed mines in the area and boost prospects for economic development.
“For us in Marten Falls, it’s very important for government to signify their intent to move ahead with the road. This would be a north-south link and it’s a road we’ve been planning on for quite some time,” said Achneepineskum.
“It’s a huge undertaking that will affect our community and other communities. We’re moving forward cautiously,” he said.