The Objiway community of Eabametoong and Cree of Nestantaga in northern Ontario have found themselves on the front lines to avert catastrophe from climate change. They are anticipating a three-year struggle to oppose two new roads planned to accommodate mines in what has become known as Ontario’s Ring of Fire. The battle takes place via co-ordinated federal and provincial Environmental Assessments (EAs).
One EA battle is a proposed 107-kilometre road from the native community of Webequie airport to Fly In Mining Exploration Camps in the James Bay Lowlands. The EA study for the proponent is being developed by the SNC Lavalin Corporation. Another EA battleground concerns a road proposed from the end of Painter Lake Forestry Road to the native community of Martin Falls. According to Environment Canada’s preliminary EA’s it is “approximately 140 to 250 kilometres in length.”
The primary way to prevent environmentally destructive mining in the James Bay Lowlands Ring of Fire is through EAs for proposed roads. Our antiquated mining laws (from the 19thcentury) exempt mines themselves from EA review.
Part of the reason for the opposition from the Eabametoong and Nestantaga First Nations is that until shortly before the last provincial election Ontario planned a more comprehensive environmental study for the entire Ring of Fire region. Now the Province has switched to isolated EA's for roads as its only commitment to preventing damage to the environment and accelerating climate change.
One of the major barriers to obtaining EA approvals for mining development in the Ring of Fire is the recovery plan for the endangered Woodland Caribou. Yet recent changes to the Ontario Endangered Species Act create loopholes that may help secure road approvals.
The mining proponents claim roads will have less negative impact when built on eskers laid down over the peatbogs by retreating glaciers. These eskers, however, are important for caribou migration. They also provide homes for wolves and wolverines. Wolverines, once found throughout Ontario, have found their last refuge in the roadless Far North.
The lack of any roads in the entire Ring of Fire Region makes it critical for the caribou’s recovery. According to the Ontario Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan, it is the only part Ontario where there has been an increase in caribou numbers. The lack of roads is a major barrier to non-native caribou poachers. Where roads exist in Ontario caribou numbers have failed to increase.
Attempts to justify Ring of Fire mining development based on a presumed benefit to native communities are put into question by the potential revenue these communities could have obtained from the now dismantled cap and trade program for carbon emissions. Cap & Trade, dismantled by the Ford Provincial government, was accruing around $4 billion to the provincial budget. There could be no better use of this revenue than to pay native communities in the Far North of Ontario to be custodians of the peatland wetlands - one of our planet’s greatest carbon sinks.
Ontario’s Far North, dominated by the James Bay and Hudson Bay Lowlands, is the world’s second-largest peatland ecosystem. This amounts to a massive cooling system for the planet. The peatlands of the Far North store 35 billion tonnes of carbon. Greater than all the carbon storage found in the rest of Ontario. The Far North is also the largest area of roadless boreal forest in the world
Even the most aggressive carbon reduction programs conceivable in the province cannot compensate for the impact of peat dried and lost triggered by the construction of roads and industrial development. This would be especially catastrophic if a peat fire was triggered, an event that has not taken place within the Far North during human memory.
Peat fires in the Far North could be a nightmare scenario. An example is the 2015 peat fires in Indonesia. These released 11.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per day for over two months. This was greater than the carbon dioxide emissions for all of the European Union during the same period. Another less-considered climate change impact is the fact roads invite non-native earthworms which hasten leaf decay further accelerating release of carbon.
Considering how much is at stake it is revealing that the former name of the Ojibway community fighting roads in the Ring of Fire was once Fort Hope. They are a fortress of hope in the struggle to avert disaster from human-induced climate change.
Caribou photo: John Miekle from YK.gov.ca website
Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic "A map showing current (2017) mining claims on Treaty 9 territory in Ontario's Ring of Fire. Obtained from Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas.org)