Comments at the PDAC meeting reported in the Northern Miner 

Progress is being made at the bargaining table on a framework agreement between the Matawa Tribal Council and the provincial government on advancing the Ring of Fire, said former Ontario premier Bob Rae, who represents the council in the negotiations, during a panel discussion at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada convention in Toronto.

But he warned it required a lot of work, and “refuses to give in to the sentiment that says this has got to be done in two weeks, two months or four months.”

He said that “this has got to be done right, and it has to be done in a way that shows real understanding and respect for the people whose lives are going to be more impacted than the lives of anyone in this room.”

Rae argued that the First Nations must be consulted differently than they have been in the past. Ontario is a province that has relied on mining for development for over 150 years, he pointed out, but “this development has taken place without particularly benefitting First Nations communities.”

Rae says the ways this project or this part of Ontario could benefit from growth and prosperity are “really quite simple.” You have to persuade the First Nations that the project is environmentally sustainable [there are four major river systems, and the area is described as one of the country’s remaining “pristine wildernesses”]; ensure there will be infrastructure improvements, and available jobs and training; decrease poverty; and make permanent improvements in revenue as a result of the profits from projects.

“Every single one of the communities in the Ring of Fire is effectively on welfare,” he said. “Not only personally are people on welfare, but the communities themselves are on welfare. The communities are completely dependent on government handouts for their survival.”

Rae said that in his travels and discussions with First Nations communities, it is clear that they want jobs and work, but they also want “respect and a degree of dignity,” and an understanding that they have a claim to use the land and its benefits, which he says goes back several millennia.

“The arrival of European settlement has not brought with it great prosperity, and it has not brought with it great benefit yet,” he said. “And it’s up to our generation — it seems to me — to show that we can have this kind of development, and that it will benefit people who have been living on the margins of society — on the margins of economic prosperity — for a very long time.”

He said that “for those of you who have not been on a reserve or in a remote community for some time, the level and degree of poverty, the challenge that families face and the difficulties people face every single day are huge, and we have to address those issues as quickly as we address the other issues.”

Rae argued that if stakeholders get it right, in the near future there won’t be any significant unemployment among the First Nations communities that are close to the Ring of Fire. But he warned that it can’t happen right away because it requires a lot of work in terms of improving education and skills training, and alleviating social challenges on and off the reserve.

“The first thing we have to look at is the scandal of education in terms of underfunding,” he said. He also pointed to what he described as the “prescription drug epidemic” that has devastated the communities in Treaty No. 9.

He noted that colleges and universities in northwestern Ontario are working to make aboriginal students feel at home in their institutions. But it takes time to foster skilled trades. “You don’t create a skilled tradesperson in a year, or two or three,” he continued. “It takes a serious policy of apprenticeship, it takes a serious policy on what curriculum is being offered in high school — even in elementary school.”

On the bright side he noted that there are many examples in Canada where individuals and communities have transformed as a result of permanent employment. And the willingness to engage is there, he said. He pointed to instances across the country where First Nations communities have — either as a business or a community — built transmission lines and created infrastructure. “We’re seeing lots of examples where it’s the First Nations themselves who are saying: ‘We will build this, we will take responsibility for the contracts and for moving it forward,’ and when that happens, it becomes a positive development for people.”

One success story, he said, comes from the other side of James Bay, where he argues communities have been transformed over the last 20 years as a result of decisions by the Cree leadership, the Quebec government and Quebec Hydro. “We are on the verge of the same potential [in Ontario] if we get it right,” he said.

“We have to make it happen. The age of paternalism where people will say ‘we’re just going to do it this way and we’ll give you a few crumbs off the side of the table’ — and that’s the way it’s always been done — that age is gone.”