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4 First Nations sign deal with Ontario to build roads near Ring of Fire

The Canadian Press

Four First Nations have signed a deal with Ontario for new roads, other infrastructure projects and skills training as the province lays a foundation for plans to mine the mineral-rich Ring of Fire region.

The province said Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek, Aroland First Nation, Ginoogaming First Nation and Long Lake #58 First Nation will see their roads that connect to the provincial highway system fortified and renewed.

Main thoroughfares in the area, Highway 11 and Highway 584, will be fortified and repaved, with work slated to begin before winter.

The roads, about 300 kilometres east of Thunder Bay, Ont., will support critical mineral and resource development, Premier Doug Ford said.

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"These are all-season roads that will support First Nations communities, built by First Nations workers," Ford said Tuesday.

The province signed letters of confirmation with Kenogamisis Investment Corporation,and Minodahmun Development, the former owned by those four First Nations and the latter owned by three of them.

The province is investing in the area, known as Greenstone, as part of its long-term strategy to mine the area and regions north into the Ring of Fire.

"This historic agreement is going to help strengthen the Greenstone region, it's going to better connect First Nations and northern communities to the province's highway network and improve year round access to every day essentials, like food, fuel and health care," Ford said.

Greenstone Gold Mines, one of the largest open-pit mines in the country, is set to officially open later this summer.

The province is trying to create an end-to-end manufacturing chain for electric vehicle batteries and it sees northern Ontario's Ring of Fire region as a prime source for the critical minerals needed.

Two other communities, Webequie First Nation and Marten Falls First Nation, have signed deals with the province to handle the environmental assessments of three proposed roads into the Ring of Fire.

Several First Nations both inside and outside the Ring of Fire region have said mining on their traditional territories cannot occur without their prior informed consent.

Building up Greenstone is a priority for the province, Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford said. It is an area he has dubbed the "corridor to prosperity."

As part of the deal with the four First Nations, the province will spend $2 million to build the Migizi Plaza Rest Stop, which will serve as a hub for the nearby communities. The province will also spend $1.9 million to provide training to secure jobs for mineral development.

"Building on the success of today's announcement we believe we are in the best position any government has ever been to build out the corridor to prosperity for the benefit of isolated First Nation communities north of us and a real prospect of developing critical minerals in the Ring of Fire," Rickford said.

"We are laying the foundation for Greenstone to become the new centre of gravity for mining, in partnership with First Nations."

The Ontario Provincial Police also needs a new detachment in the area as its current location is needed for the gold mine. The province said it will work to relocate the police station.

The four First Nations welcomed the news, although one chief said its participation was under duress.

"Minodahmun's Indigenous workforce development program is crucial for empowering our people with the skills and opportunities to build meaningful careers, strengthen our communities and ensure our members are participating in projects on our lands," said Ginoogaming First Nation Chief Sheri Taylor.

But Taylor took issue with the province's approach to reconciliation for the First Nation.

"It is not missed on us that projects that benefit the government of Ontario are taking precedence over the resolution of our State of Emergency and seven decades of grievances that we’ve experienced in this part of James Bay Treaty No. 9," Taylor said.

The First Nation declared a state of emergency in mid-May saying it was "overwhelmed" by a rise in violence and drug-and-alcohol-fuelled crime. Taylor said they have asked Anishinabek Police Service and the Ontario Provincial Police, which share policing duties, to increase their presence.

"The government expects economic reconciliation without properly addressing longstanding concerns from First Nations," said New Democrat Sol Mamakwa, the Ontario legislature's lone First Nation member.

The rest stop plaza will be an important part of the development of the region, said Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek Chief Yvette Metansinine.

"Migizi Plaza will showcase the vibrant culture of our communities," Metansinine said. "The Plaza will provide valuable economic development and employment opportunities to community members and allow our First Nations to be active participants in the development of the region."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 18, 2024.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press