I recently had the privilege of attending a meeting with the Minister of Northern Development and Mines as an observer with Neskantaga First Nation. You can follow Neskantaga’s campaign to protect their rights here.

Talks were focused on proposed industrial developments in the so-called “Ring of Fire” in Northern Ontario. The “Ring of Fire” refers to a mineral rich area around McFaulds Lake, located over 1,000 kilometres north of Toronto in the heart of the boreal forest and in a one of the largest wetlands in the world. This also is smack in the middle of the traditional territories of Matawa First Nations, a Tribal Council of nine Ontario First Nations.

On May 9th, a giant US mining company (Cliffs Natural Resources) announced that they will go ahead with a $3.3 billion Ring of Fire project, which includes a chromite mine east of Webequie, a transportation route running south from the mine site and a ferrochrome processing plant in Sudbury.

The reaction from First Nations was swift and unequivocal – with Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Deputy Grand Chief Terry Waboose describing the announcement as a “classic example of development going ahead without adequate consultation, input and consent from our First Nations.” NAN is a political organization representing 49 First Nation communities across Treaty 9 and Treaty 5 areas of northern Ontario, including Matawa First Nations.

At every level First Nations are calling for a process that is grounded in the internationally recognized minimum standard of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). FPIC is articulated most clearly in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada has endorsed:

Article 32 (2). States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.

Greenpeace endorses FPIC as an essential human rights standard in all developments and a key to ensuring social and environmental sustainability.

Indeed, the unified call from First Nations and their representative organizations, in Ontario and across Canada, for the standard of consent to be the basis of consultations in the Ring of Fire is remarkable:

Matawa First Nations have passed a Resolution calling for a pause in non consensual developments in their traditional territories and insist that they “will only proceed after their communities have participated in a full and thorough environmental review of all of the proposed mines, refinery, roads and infrastructure and after fully informing themselves and having negotiated appropriate terms and conditions that will protect the land, waters and sustainability of their way of life and then freely consent to the project”.

NAN says that  “…governments and industry must obtain the free, prior and informed consent from NAN First Nations before any significant steps are taken pertaining to developments in their traditional territory… NAN supports the position taken by the Matawa First Nations for inclusion in the Ring of Fire discussions, planning, decision-making and project implementation. We will no longer accept any external decisions that exclude NAN First Nations from participating equally in all development activities in our territory."

The Chiefs of Ontario is the coordinating body for 134 First Nations in Ontario. At the 38th Annual All Ontario Chiefs Conference earlier this months, Chiefs in Assembly passed resolution 12/11 formally supporting Matawa First Nations in asking the provincial government and industry to negotiate based on FPIC. Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy elaborated: “When a First Nation’s right to free, prior and informed consent is ignored, the consequences are devastating”.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the national representative organization of the over 630 First Nations in Canada passed a resolution last week resolving that Chiefs-in-Assembly: 1. Support the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) position taken by the Matawa First Nations on the moratorium and the eviction of mining companies in the area known as the Ring of Fire, and 2. Demand that Canada, Ontario and industry engage the Matawa First Nations in a process that is grounded on the rights to provide FPIC prior to any further development in the area known as the Ring of Fire.

Greenpeace wholeheartedly supports this unified call for a constructive process in the Ring of Fire based on FPIC. As I previously wrote, FPIC is essential for resolving uncertainty, achieving sustainability and ensuring prosperity on the land. Not to mention that it’s a basic right.

Unfortunately, Greenpeace’s support or even such a unified First Nations voice does not translate into willingness on the part of the Ontario government to get it right in the Ring of Fire.

At the meeting I attended, Minister of Northern Development and Mines Rick Bartolucci repeatedly insisted that the project must proceed despite First Nations' very reasonable request for a pause to develop a process that respects their rights and gives them a real say in their future. At one point, his Deputy Minister even attempted to shut down any talk of First Nations rights, stating that this is a “separate conversation”! No, Deputy Minister, that is the conversation.

The Minister seems to think that his government can make unilateral decisions impacting their territories and then undertake some consultations as an afterthought. You don't consult after a decison has been announced - that's bad faith. As Deputy Grand Chief Waboose put it, “The province's commitment that it will continue to work with First Nations is disingenuous when major decisions are being made without their participation.”

What are the implications of the province riding roughshod over First Nations rights and remaining unwilling to listen to their concerns? Thunder Bay’s Chronicle Journal, which has been covering the issue extensively and with great care, starkly described the results in an editorial: “Here in the Northwest there is mostly rancor where there could instead be a meeting of minds to involve First Nations around the hugely promising Ring of Fire mineral deposit.”

It’s time the Minister started listening.