NEWLY minted Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford would probably not take kindly to comparisons between himself and Donald Trump, who has sometime demonstrated a predilection for bombastic rhetoric.
But Ford risks those comparisons if he continues to make simplistic references to the Ring of Fire, which will remain one of the most significant files on the province’s plate, regardless of what party is in government following the June 7 election.
Perhaps trying to channel the frustration many have expressed about the seemingly slow pace of development in the potentially lucrative mineral belt about 550 kilometres north-east of Thunder Bay, Ford recently said he would get on a bulldozer himself, if necessary, to establish long-awaited access roads.
That sounds like classic Trump. During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Trump said many American airports and highways were a shambles, giving the impression he would personally oversee their resurrection. Not much has happened yet.
While on his bulldozer, Ford said, he’d be accompanied by North Bay-area PC MPP Vic Fedeli, who has visited the Ring of Fire and presumably knows the file as well as anyone else not directly involved in the mining industry.
One thing Fedeli should explain to the Toronto-centric Ford, if he hasn’t already, is just how close Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resource came to building the first chromite mine in the Ring of Fire.
It’s easy to forget that, until about five years ago, Cliffs was fully engaged in the Ring of Fire with both affected First Nations and the Liberal government which, to its credit, had agreed to pay half the cost of a main access road then estimated in the range of $600-$700 million.
Cliffs was a serious player. It’s well though-out plan to rail chromite ore to a proposed smelter on the outskirts of Sudbury made sense.
But by 2013, prices for iron-ore — Cliff’s bread-and-butter commodity — had gone into a serious slump. Cliffs, like any business, had no choice but to re-set its priorities. The Ring of Fire, despite all of its potential, didn’t make the cut.
Gold prices also dropped like a rock around that time, forcing Barrick Gold to similarly reconfigure its operations. As a businessman, Ford can well appreciate the direct connection between market demand and the hard decisions businesses make, often irrespective of what governments are doing at the time.
In the Ring of Fire, as prices for metals begin to recover, players like Noront Resources and KWG Resources have picked up where Cliffs left off. Following Cliffs’ departure, the province earmarked $1 billion for Ring of Fire infrastructure, which includes two major access roads — one going north-south, the other east-west.
Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised that construction on these routes will begin next year. This is not a defence of the Liberal government, but it’s inaccurate to suggest it has been sitting on its hands.
Meanwhile, land-use negotiations between First Nations, the province and mining proponents will no doubt continue, if not at the break-neck speed some people believe it should.
One lesson the Liberal government learned the hard way is that it is futile to try and run rough-shod over First Nations, especially when it comes to mining projects. The new era requires patience, as well as an expectation that traditional Indigenous lands will be respected, and that Indigenous communities get a share in any economic gains.
This is something that Ford may have to learn if he becomes premier, but he will learn it, just like the mining companies did.
Though major jobs have yet to materialize, the Ring of Fire has never been inactive. It is a complex file and will continue to be so. Anyone who suggests otherwise hasn’t done their homework.