Cliffs Natural Resources project mine site, known as Black Thor, is located about540 km north of  Thunder Bay, Ont. and 240 km west of James Bay in an area known as the Ring of Fire.

A new report out today is taking a closer look at the relationships between mining companies, the government and First Nations communities when it comes to development of the Ring of Fire.

The report, called Missed Opportunities, Glimmers of Hope was written by Heather Hall and Ken Coates. Coates is a senior fellow with the MacDonald-Laurier Institute and Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation.

He calls the project one of Canada’s most remarkable mineral deposits. The Ring of Fire is a huge mineral deposit of chromite, nickel, gold, copper and platinum discovered in 2007. It’s located in a remote area in northern Ontario with limited access.

Even though it was discovered a decade ago, Coates says not much has happened so far in developing the project, beyond talks between First Nations communities and mining companies.

“The Indigenous communities in northern Ontario, particularly the ones north of the Great Lakes are among the poorest in Canada,” he said.

“Why would they [Indigenous communities] support resource projects that are for the benefit of the province or the country as a whole when the country and the province haven’t in their view, kept up with their obligations to the communities themselves.”

Coates says the onus shouldn’t be completely on the mining companies to move the project forward.

“It’s not really fair to ask a mining company through a major project development to address what is really more than a century of government shortcomings in terms of providing resources, supplies and infrastructure,” he said.

Province stuck in the middle?

Last week, Premier Kathleen Wynne signaled she was getting ready to walk away from joint talks with nine First Nations affected by the Ring of Fire and proceed individually with any chief who will work with her.

In a letter to the chiefs, Wynne said they “should not squander” her 2014 commitment to spend $1 billion to help build a road to the mineral deposit.

Coates says that’s not a surprising approach for the premier to take. He says the Government of Canada took a similar approach in the past with the Assembly of First Nations on an education funding agreement.

“It does reflect a really serious challenge all across Canada and that is the question of the provincial responsibility in these areas,” he said.

Coates adds that approach of working with individual communities instead of a group as a whole creates inequality.

“A couple of communities will get linked into a road, they’ll get better facilities, they’ll get better training [and] they’ll get connected up to the resource projects,” he said.

“Then another community 300 or 400 km away will be denied.”

How to move forward

“I think the basic issue is Canada needs to decide that Indigenous communities deserve the same quality and services that other Canadians take for granted,”

To move the project along, Coates says it’s best to look at what’s worked well in the rest of the country. He cites mining company Cameco which mines uranium in Saskatchewan.

“[Cameco] signed an agreement with five Indigenous communities in the northern part of that province that provides $2 billion in benefits over 10 years,” he said.

Coates adds government needs to realize that basic infrastructure development for remote communities can’t rely on specific mining projects. He says the onus shouldn’t be on Indigenous communities supporting resource development to get basic infrastructure.

“I think the basic issue is Canada needs to decide that Indigenous communities deserve the same quality and services that other Canadians take for granted,” he said.