THIS TIME nine years ago the potential of the Ring of Fire mineral belt in Northwestern Ontario was being realized. More than 30 mining exploration companies were digging around the James Bay lowlands and finding immense evidence of mineral deposits, chiefly chromite — the main ingredient in stainless steel.

People salivated over the economic impact and potential job creation. Then-premier Dalton McGuinty called the project key to Ontario economic recovery. His northern development minister, Thunder Bay’s Michael Gravelle, began the first of many meetings with First Nations in the region.

Initially, few in the business world took seriously the need to consult with First Nations before putting development plans in motion. This led to protests by those communities and eventually to a whole new legal framework ensuring such consultation would precede any development.

Everyone involved realized the potential to provide economic stimulus across the North, a region accustomed to crumbs while the rest of Ontario dined heartily.

Fast forward to 2017. How things changed!

The Liberal government now run by Kathleen Wynne reluctantly came to the conclusion that all those years of trying to negotiate a framework agreement with the Matawa Tribal Council representing nine First Nations surrounding the Ring of Fire were hopeless. Instead, the government would deal with individual First Nations that indicated a willingness to get involved and get started. Naturally, this annoyed those in charge at Matawa.

Sooner or later, however, the economy of negotiation — and there is an entire sub-economy that thrives on talking — has to give way to the economy of Northwestern Ontario. The former is supposed to jolt the latter and nine years of consultation hasn’t brought that jolt much closer. There are tentative plans to build access into the region but they’re still just plans.

As Marten Falls First Nation Chief Bruce Achneepineskum said in November, talks with Ontario “failed” because Matawa could not agree on a negotiating protocol. “We just ran out of time,” he said.

Marten Falls and Aroland First Nations have agreements with RoF developer NorOnt and Webequie is in talks with them. Ginoogaming Chief Celia Echum used her re-election statement last week to say she will work on maximizing business opportunities with RoF miner Premier Gold. Long Lake 58 has indicated a desire to proceed based on revenue-sharing. That leaves Ebamatoong, Neskantaga and Constance Lake still insisting that talks continue.

In a sentiment that must be occurring to residents of other Matawa communities, Achneepineskum said road access would bring desperately needed jobs closer to reality in his community.

“How can we stop young people’s ambitions . . . for a better life if we don’t start taking steps to making the economic opportunities that lie there at the Ring of Fire? We have to create hope,” he said.

This week we’ve seen the current Conservative government follow the Liberal lead. Greg Rickford of Kenora, the regional cabinet minister, confirmed the old framework agreement is dead.

Instead, he said, the government will pursue individual deals with the nine First Nations to, as he put it, address their needs and opportunities.

Matawa should have seen this coming. Shortly before the 2018 Ontario election, former premier Bob Rae, Matawa’s lead negotiator, sent a memo warning the nine tribal chiefs to resolve their internal differences or face the collapse of collective negotiations to develop the Ring of Fire. Otherwise, he said, the incoming Tory government (by this time polls had made the election result clear) would end the formal agreement and pursue a new course. It was prescient advice.

Can individual communities prosper outside the Matawa umbrella? Or would they stand to gain more by insisting talks continue for a tenth year, an eleventh . . .?

Ebamatoong and Neskantaga say the government’s piecemeal approach is a divide-and-conquer tactic. Ebamatoong Chief Elizabeth Atlookan told CBC last fall, “We went in as a team of nine . . . The government was able to fracture (us) . . . It caused a rift among the nations.”

She said the “betrayal” happened in August 2017 when Wynne announced separate all-weather road deals with Marten Falls, Webequie and Nibinamik. And now these and other communities are well on the way to a bright new future while a Matawa minority clings to a negotiating model that was going nowhere.

Sooner or later, someone has to pull the plug on a hopeless process. That successive Ontario governments have done just that, and either entered into agreements with willing partners or helped them to deal directly with mining companies anxious to include them in the spoils, suggests it is the right approach.

First Nations interests must be protected but so must their opportunities.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.

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