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Ring of Fire road ‘a huge win for northern Ontario’

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by Angela Gismondi

Construction industry stakeholders are calling Premier Kathleen Wynne’s most recent Ring of Fire road access announcement a “game changer” for development in northern Ontario.
Ring of Fire road ‘a huge win for northern Ontario’

"I think it's a huge win for northern Ontario as a whole," said Adam Pinder, executive director of the Sault Ste. Marie Construction Association.

"That level of development will certainly impact construction companies either directly or indirectly across the north. A road of that size, an investment of that size, just to get the project underway is a big deal, let alone the potential of the actual Ring of Fire area. We're happy to hear it and look forward to what the future holds."

Wynne was joined by Michael Gravelle, minister of northern development and mines, in Thunder Bay Aug. 21 to announce agreements are in place with First Nation communities in northern Ontario to begin constructing an all-season access road to the mineral-rich region.

The Ring of Fire is an emerging mining district in the James Bay Lowlands region located about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.

Environmental assessments are expected to begin by January 2018 and construction is planned to begin in 2019, pending all necessary approvals.

Ontario Road Builders' Association (ORBA) Chief Operating Officer Geoff Wilkinson said he's optimistic about the premier's announcement, especially since "it has taken a long time to get this far."

"We are happy to hear that the government is seeing progress with their negotiations with First Nations communities," he said.

"ORBA contractors plan years ahead for capacity. With all of the transportation infrastructure projects in the pipeline in Ontario, we want to be able to add the Ring of Fire project to our plans."

According to a media release issued by the Webequie First Nation and the Nibinamik First Nation, the parties have signed a Joint Community Access Infrastructure Planning Agreement to collaborate on a specific study that could potentially bring a multipurpose corridor to its communities and the region.

"There are a lot of stakeholders involved in the process and it's got to be done right."

Adam Pinder
Sault Ste. Marie Construction Association

The corridor would connect to the provincial highway network north of Pickle Lake.

The province also said it is supporting the Marten Falls First Nation to plan and construct an access road connecting the community to the existing provincial highway network at Aroland/Nakina.

On the mining side, the project will also provide all-season access into the proposed development site being pursued by Noront Resources Ltd.

According to the province, the mineral deposits in the Ring of Fire have an estimated value of $60 billion, boasting one of the world's richest deposits of chromite as well as high-grade nickel, copper, zinc, gold, platinum and vanadium.

While the dollar amount for the road is currently unknown, it is part of the province's $1 billion investment towards Ring of Fire infrastructure which it committed to in 2014.

Barry Steinberg, chief executive officer of Consulting Engineers of Ontario, is cautiously optimistic about the announcement and hopes history won't repeat itself.

"All parties who will be affected have to ask themselves and talk about what does success look like. When they have determined and agreed upon what success will look like, then they can move forward because this has fallen off the rails before and we don't want it to fall off again," he said. "You have to include all of the important parties."

Pinder also has concerns given the history of the process.

"I think the past and how things have gone to date is an indicator of what the future will be like," said Pinder. "This isn't a solution. There are a lot of stakeholders involved in the process and it's got to be done right. I think there will be challenges that everyone faces but I think they are worth working through and solving to the mutual benefit of everyone involved."

Wynne's announcement comes after years of delays and negotiations since the region's discovery in 2007. Former premier Bob Rae was appointed as chief negotiator for the nine Matawa First Nations in the area in 2013 and said any road or mining development needs not just consultation, but consent from First Nations.

Ian Cunningham, president of the Council of Ontario Construction Associations, said although a lot of time has passed since the government made the initial commitment to invest in the region, the fact the roadway will connect remote communities to the provincial highway system and provide access to the mine site is "all very positive and it's going to be good for construction particularly in the north. There will be a lot of First Nation workers used in the project and it will be great for economic development for those communities."

Paul de Jong, president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, echoed Cunningham's comments.

"To see this road being conceived is a critical part of strategically developing Canada's natural resources and that provides construction job opportunities for skilled workers to build their skill sets to see a career path for the future because there are going to be jobs up there," he said.

A component that needs to be considered when the development begins to unfold is ensuring competition within the construction industry, de Jong added.

"That means that as a proponent or an owner, whether it's the government of Ontario or one of the private owners, that they ensure they have the best opportunity amongst the suite of construction models to ensure that this project is done on time, on budget, on target," explained de Jong.

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