An agreement is in place to build a potentially half-billion-dollar road to riches in Ontario’s far north.
The Ring of Fire is a vast deposit of minerals including chromium, platinum, palladium and nickel that is expected to yield some $60 billion over its life cycle. But what is needed most is a road to connect the remote deposits to allow equipment to roll in and ore deposits to be transported south for processing.
Now, six years after then Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced he was creating a special secretariat to prioritize and fast-track the Ring of Fire, his successor Premier Kathleen Wynne, has announced a deal has been struck to fund road construction proposals for the Ring of Fire.
This is not just any road, however. The Ring of Fire is some 280 kilometres from the tiny burg of MacLeod on Highway 11, which is 272 kilometres from Thunder Bay.
There is no road into the communities around Marten Falls, which is in the centre of the deposits. Isolated First Nations are fly-in communities with some ice roads.
A main road into the heart of the area would allow it to be connected to those communities, opening them up to access building materials, groceries and social connections.
There were two route proposals, each about 300 kilometres long, estimated to cost up to $550 million. The big holdup had been getting agreements. The nine First Nations in the area were split on the benefits of mining the Ring of Fire.
However, that hurdle has been cleared.
Wynne said the first proposal involves an east-west road connecting Webequie and Nibinamik First Nations to the provincial highway network north of Pickle Lake. This road will continue from the community of Webequie to the Ring of Fire.
The second proposal is a north-south community access road that is being planned for construction by the Marten Falls First Nation. This will come with an option to expand the road to the Ring of Fire to support the development of chromite mining, explains a provincial release.
An environmental assessment of both road projects is expected to begin by January 2018, followed by construction in 2019 pending all necessary approvals.
"We're moving forward with our plan to unlock one of the biggest mineral development opportunities in almost a century," Wynne said in a statement. "We know that the Ring of Fire will be a game changer for communities in the region and quite frankly for the whole province."
The news brought cheers from First Nations and from those in the far north where economic opportunities are few and far between.
"A road is the first piece," said Alan Coutts, president and CEO of Noront, which holds rights to the deposits, noting the outcome of an agreement with the First Nations will be indicative of broader issues arising from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and will set the stage for a renewed relationship going forward across Canada.
Noront is intent on developing high grade deposits of nickel, copper, platinum and chromite at their Eagle's Nest deposits within the Ring of Fire.
According to the release, the timeframe laid out for the roads allows Noront to "advance its pre-development work and ready itself for the three-year construction of its Eagle's Nest nickel, copper, platinum group metal mine."
But Coutts said building what will be Ontario's biggest road project since Highway 407 will come with its share of challenges.
"It runs over the Canadian Shield and then turns to muskeg," he said. "We're not looking for a paved road, it will be a gravel road but of industrial quality to allow for all that heavy traffic."
While the portion over the shield is fairly straightforward, the section over muskeg will require the use of geo-cell technology, a honey comb system of cells that are laid like a mat over the basic surface and then filled with gravel to compact down, he explains. It has to be refilled and compacted regularly since it will tend to sink over time in the soft muskeg.
A $785,000 study tabled last year found while a road is feasible, there's still a lot of work to be done securing a unanimous consensus among the five affected First Nations.
"There are logistics issues such as, will you need a driver's license to use it, who will maintain it and who will police it and control access," said Coutts.
The province has also spent $30 million on discussions with the Marten Falls, Webequie, Eabametoong, Neskantaga and Nibinamik First Nations, those closest to the development.
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 and some First Nations are concerns about impact on hunting, trapping and fishing.
"The time has now come to make some decisions that will move us forward," Wynne wrote in a letter earlier this year to the nine First Nations. "My government announced $1 billion to support infrastructure into the Ring of Fire three years ago and if we are going to deliver on that we can delay no further. We should not squander the opportunity to build all-season roads and set the stage for future social and economic growth for communities that are supportive."
Noront, for example, has issued shares to the Marten Falls First Nation and brought them in as shareholder.
They're eager to get going because there are jobs and strong economic development potential, said Noront.
While the Ring of Fire is being touted for its chromite deposits, Coutts said the initial mining will pull nickel and copper.