Yahoo! Exclusive: Aboriginal Ring of Fire Director Michael Fox sees opportunity in mining

Lindsay Jolivet
Daily Brew
Michael Fox, Ring of Fire Senior Director for Webequie First Nation.

A mineral deposit in Ontario's far north is a source of excitement and controversy for the province's mining industry.  Named the Ring of Fire — after the Johnny Cash song — the area contains a Nickel deposit and the largest deposit of chromite ever discovered in North America. Chromite is a key ingredient in stainless steel. Two companies, Cliffs Natural Resources and Noront, are in talks to mine the region.

Dalton McGuinty has suggested the Ring of Fire could rival Alberta's oil sands, creating thousands of jobs near reserves that are plagued by unemployment. But its economic potential is matched only by its hurdles and risks. Environmental damage, sustainable infrastructure, and the well-being of nearby aboriginal communities are at stake.

Michael Fox is the Ring of Fire Senior Director for Webequie First Nation, a fly-in community 540 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. He's a liaison between the community and those seeking to exploit its resources. Fox spoke with Yahoo! Canada News about the complex process of developing a remote region and the challenges of ensuring that Webequie benefits from the Ring of Fire as much as the companies planning to mine it. This is a condensed version of that discussion.

Yahoo! Canada News: What are your biggest challenges as a liaison between the community, the companies, and the government? It sounds like a big job.

Michael Fox: There are two visions of the two distinct mines that the two companies have. Noront has a nickel deposit that is going to be an underground mine. And their project description has an east-west road. The Cliffs project is an open pit mine, it has a north-south road. So we have two different environmental footprints. It's trying to understand the nature of those distinctions and address the concerns around the environmental impacts.

It's probably going to be an industrial road, not necessarily an access road to the communities at this point until we figure out how we're going to regulate either road in a way that benefits the community, not just the mine.

Y! Canada: Some community members have opposed the roads and The Northern Communities Working Group has proposed a rail line as one solution. What would work best to benefit the companies and the community?

Fox: There's too much work to be done in existing, real projects to speculate whether or not there's a train.

The challenge that both companies have is that this is base metal operations. So you have Attawapiskat with the De Beers mine, you have GoldCorp with the Musselwhite mine and other remote operations but the end product is gold and diamonds. Those precious metals can be shipped out by plane, versus base metal operations like chromite and nickel, which have to be shipped out by tonnage of ore bodies.

Y! Canada: What environmental concerns does the community have about this development?

Fox: The primary one is water. Each mine requires a certain amount of water for its operations, the intake, the usage, the treatment and then the discharge back into the watershed. So watersheds are a major concern for our communities because these are remote, pristine areas, that have an industrial complex in the middle of them. People's primary water source comes from these water sheds.

Y! Canada: A positive element of this development is the prospect of being able to improve the quality of life for people living on the reserve. Can you give me a sense of the social issues that affect the people living in Webequie?

Fox: Webequie is not unique with some of the social challenges and the infrastructure challenges, programming challenges that it has.

There's never enough infrastructure, enough programming dollars, housing dollars. They're faced with community members looking for ways to fulfill basic needs.

There's always going to be a waiting list for housing. There's always going to be a waiting list for students who want to go to school.

They're looking at the possibility of the benefits that may flow from this project. Quality of life, is there a way we can structure these agreements with the company that we can build a seniors' complex? Is there a way we can structure this so we can have a youth recreational centre? Is there a way we can structure this that we can build 20 houses a year?

Y! Canada: The hype has suggested the Ring of Fire has enormous economic potential, comparable to that of the oil sands. But others point out that mining these ore bodies is a one-time opportunity and if we don't plan sustainably, this development could be a failure. What is at stake?

Fox: Like any non-renewable resource, including the oil sands, it disappears. Resources are finite.

I think the X-Factor here is the actual road. How do you create this infrastructure in a cost-effective way if it's a remote area?

Noront, their professional judgment says this is going to be an 11-year mine. It will also set the stage and act as a catalyst possibly for other deposits that can be found in the Ring of Fire.

Y! Canada: How beneficial can this be for your community if it's only an 11-year mining project?

Fox: That's Noront's project. Cliff's project, now, is multi-generational. That project is 40 years they're looking at, minimally.

In the Ring of Fire, the first phase, if you're looking at regional development, is creating the basic infrastructure for any industrial development.

We need power, a road, to assist in future discoveries around the area. The cost is exponential when you're looking at remote regions.

[ Last week's One-on-One: Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi ]

Y! Canada: Webequie received some Christmas gifts from Noront and Cliffs Natural Resources, including  gifts for 700 kids . What was the community's reaction to being wooed by these companies, if you want to describe it that way?

Fox: Corporate social responsibility is pretty standard. They want to make a contribution to communities that they're in. in this case, it's no different. I think the mining companies around the Ring of Fire want to have a positive impact. Knowing the financial challenges these remote communities have, because most people have never visited a remote community, you can see that there's not a whole lot of money there.

Treating the kids to toys that those kids can enjoy at Christmas is part of their social responsibility in this stage of the project. It's not new.

Y! Canada: Some groups have suggested they think these companies are exploiting the communities but it sounds like you have a positive outlook. Is that safe to say?

Fox: I think I have a cautious approach. The EA isn't done. So when the Environmental Assessment is done, then we'll know the full impact. The benefits have to be larger than the impacts, otherwise it would be shorthanded.

I think the Ring of Fire companies, Noront and Cliffs, have a strong interest in its project succeeding and the community of Webequie has a strong interest in seeing its community succeed.

Y! Canada: You're confident that you can find a solution that works for the community and the companies involved?

Fox: I'm confident that there are ways to include the quality of life for Webequie in these projects.

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