Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne signalled this week to First Nations in the province’s north that she’s willing to abandon joint talks with them over building roads into the Ring of Fire region.
The provincial government has been talking with the chiefs of the nine Matawa First Nations for years, since it pledged $1 billion in 2014 to fund infrastructure into the chromite-rich area.
That funding promise was repeated in the government’s budget for the next two years, but was not in this year’s budget.
Wynne said in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., earlier this week that commitment stands, but she told the chiefs that if Ontario is going to deliver on it, there can’t be any more delays.
“We should not squander the opportunity to build all-season roads and set the stage for future social and economic growth for communities that are supportive,” she wrote in a letter to them this week.
Wynne wrote that while she continues to hope progress can be made, she is prepared to enter into bilateral discussions with the Matawa First Nations who do want to pursue transportation infrastructure.
“We need to see meaningful progress in weeks, not months, and I look forward to being updated in the very near future,” she wrote.
At a meeting in October, the chiefs told the premier that for progress on roads to be achieved, more discussions needed to take place around road ownership, governance, permitting and land management, Wynne noted in her letter.
Those talks have been progressing, but need to happen alongside progress on road infrastructure, she wrote.
The Ring of Fire is a mining area about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont., that holds one of the world’s richest deposits of chromite — used to make stainless steel — as well as nickel, copper and platinum, valued at anywhere from $30 billion to $60 billion.
The Ontario government has so far unsuccessfully pressed the federal government to match its planned $1-billion investment.
Noront Resources, which signed a US$20-million deal to buy claims in the region that were owned indirectly by Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. after it pulled out in 2013, wrote in an update earlier this year that the talks between the province and the First Nations were taking longer than anticipated and “have the potential to delay the provincial government’s stated goal of having shovels in the ground by 2018.”
The latest mandate letter for the minister of northern development and mines has a target of starting road work in the area next year.