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Matawa Chiefs' Ring of Fire Pullout Puts Mining Project in Peril

The stakes are high in Ottawa this week as the Chiefs of the Matawa First Nations lobby for the Canadian government to change their environmental assessment plans for a massive chromite mine in the resource-rich Ring of Fire in Northern Ontario.

The Chiefs of all nine Ojibway and Cree communities of the Matawa First Nations pulled their support for development in the Ring of Fire located in the James Bay lowlands after the government ignored their calls for a Joint Review Panel environmental assessment (EA) for the Cliffs Chromite Project. Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources plans to have its proposed Black Thor chromite mine in production by 2015. It would be the first mine in the Ring of Fire, a swathe of resource-rich land in northern Ontario that has industrialists slavering and First Nations wary.

Unless the Canadian government changes the project's EA process to a joint panel and regains the support of the Matawa First Nations, the entire development could be at risk.

Since May 2011 the Matawa chiefs have been meeting with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). which administers the federal environmental assessment process. The chiefs have stated that it’s critical that a Joint Review Panel EA be adopted in order to safeguard the sustainability and integrity of their lands. They were shocked and outraged when on October 17, CEAA announced it was proceeding with the Comprehensive EA, a process that the chiefs fear will fail to consult and accommodate First Nations. According to CEAA, both the comprehensive survey and panel review are rigorous, thorough processes.

“I don't understand how the CEAA can make this kind of choice,” said Chief Sonny Gagnon of Aroland First Nation. “The area being affected is among one of the largest groups of intact wetlands in the world. These Ring of Fire developments are going to impact everyone in the region, one way or another, but especially the First Nations near the developments. These are First Nations homelands, and we need the best EA process out there to protect them.”

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The crescent-shaped 5,120-square kilometer Ring of Fire district contains North America's only large deposit of high-grade chromite as well as significant deposits of nickel, copper, zinc, gold, and platinum group metals. The closest communities are Webequie First Nation in the northwest, Marten Falls First Nation in the southeast and the Town of Nakina in the Municipality of Greenstone, about 220 miles due south of the proposed Black Thor mine.

“Cliffs asked for a Comprehensive study EA and got it,” said Chief Peter Moonias of Neskantaga First Nation said. “However, it is not the most appropriate EA for these projects. Currently the Joint Review Panel EA is the most extensive and inclusive assessment required by government before approval of a project. It will give more time for community input and public hearings.”

The proposed Cliffs project will cross about 100 bodies of water, including three major rivers. It will re-route three waterways, drain several ponds at the mine site and affect fish habitat and wildlife in the area.

Currently more than a thousand projects are going through environmental assessment in Canada, of which only eight are in Joint Panel Review. To undertake a Joint Review, the CEAA lists three conditions that must be met: significant adverse effects on the environment; significant public concern, and infringement on aboriginal and treaty rights. The Matawa chiefs insist that the Cliffs project meet all these conditions.

If their lobbying fails in Ottawa, the chiefs say they will be forced to resort to alternative measures.

“We want development, but we also want to make sure that our lands, waters, wildlife and our way of life are not destroyed in the process,” said Chief Roger Wesley of Constance Lake First Nation.