“And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire!”

No, this entry is not about the song made famous by the “Man in Black” about the pain of being in love but the very mention of the Ring of Fire has the potential to ignite a heightened degree of passion from mining exploration companies and the First Peoples who live in the region.

The Ring of Fire situated approximately 500 kilometers northeast of Thunder Bay in the swampy muskeg, chromite-rich traditional territories of Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations, saw ice landing strips used by mining companies being blocked this past January. The blockade has since been lifted in what has been so far, an uneasy 6 month truce, where the province and the companies are to work with the First Nations to begin to address their concerns.

Uneasy because already there was an incident which has the potential to unravel any goodwill that existed between the community of Marten Falls and the company KWG Resources Inc. Chief Eli Moonias of Marten Falls recently came upon a situation on his trapline where he felt violated. He found an area which had been clear-cut with orange and red markings and fibre-glass rods with silver tags stuck into burial sites. This comes at a time when the relationship between Marten Falls and the company is already on shaky ground. The fibre-glass rods with the silver tags are markers for soil samples taken to determine whether it is feasible to build a railway to a potential mine site.

KWG spokesperson Frank Smeenk has apologized on behalf of the contractor for the “archeological burial ground that was unwittingly disturbed.”  Although the company didn’t claim responsibility, Mr. Smeenk had this to say: “The Ring of Fire development is of historic and international significance” and “I think the interests of the other 11 or 12 million Ontario taxpaying residents need to be weighed in these circumstances.”

In the March 2010 budget, Ontario announced the “Open Ontario North Strategy” that identified $45 million over 3 years for a new skills training program so that Aboriginal Peoples and northern Ontarians can benefit from jobs in the Ring of Fire region. The budget announcement also proposed to appoint a Ring of Fire Coordinator to champion “the creation of Ontario jobs and more economic activity that will support northern families while protecting the northern boreal-forest region.” Ontario has stated that they plan to address the economic, social and environmental concerns of the region with the intent of “getting it right!”

By all appearances, there seems to continue to be a gap between how “getting it right” rolls out in practice and how it is experienced on the ground. While all the details have yet to emerge on this latest incident, the mad rush to stake and explore appears to have over-looked the archeological and burial sites of Marten Falls which could have been easily identified in a land-use planning process, had it occurred according to the Premier’s vision that there be no new mines without a land use plan.

While the mine may be 5-7 years away, the claims that are being staked in the Ring of Fire will not be subject to a land-use plan and the claims will continue to be honoured, leaving communities like Marten Falls and Webequie with very little recourse, if any, to have a say in what happens in their territory.

Although there is a full commitment from Ontario to work with Aboriginal Peoples and northern Ontarians to build on the Ring of Fire’s potential, that has yet to be experienced by the impacted communities at the company level. While Ontario seems to be focusing on the Ring of Fire as a way out of the global recession for communities and families in the north, Mr. Smeenk on the other hand, through his statement seems to be advocating the status quo and presuming his actions are justified and consistent with the interests of 11 or 12 million Ontarians (!).

While the project may be perceived as an exciting opportunity for Ontario, it needs to be done right. Until it is, it will be hard for anyone to make the case that these continued conflicts are in the public interest.

The Ring of Fire Coordinator, once appointed, will have his\her hands full trying to find the right balance between development and conservation, including the interests of the communities on whose traditional lands this activity is occurring.

As one person’s reworking of the lyrics to the ring of fire shows, there is much division and misunderstanding out there. The reworked lyrics carried to the tune of the Ring of Fire go like this:

Politics is a dirty thing,

Toronto-based decisions sting.

Bound by wild desire,

The North has a Ring of Fire.

The North it burns to work its Ring of Fire.

But way down, down, south,

The hippies don’t admire,

The North’s right to work.

The Ring of Fire, The Ring of Fire.

While the music plays, the flames lick and lap the ground in the Ring of Fire that it will take one blow to fan the flame that can scorch the earth as we head into a long, dry and hot summer in Noopemig.

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