The Ring of Fire Strikes a Familiar Tune

May 27, 2014

John Sandlos

With the launch of the Ontario Liberal election platform, Premier Kathleen Wynne made it official: a centrepiece of her campaign is a $1billion investment in infrastructure to spur mineral development in the “Ring of Fire” region 500 km northeast of Thunder Bay. With or without a matching federal investment, the provincial Liberals (and the NDP, Andre Horwath suggested in a recent leaders’ debate) would send millions of public dollars north to develop an access highway and spur roads to the region, unlocking vast chromium deposits and other possible mineral plays in copper, zinc, nickel, platinum, vanadium, and gold.

And what’s not to like about the proposal? The Ontario Chamber of Commerce suggested that mining development in the Ring of Fire could generate 5500 jobs and $25 billion in economic activity by 2047. The government’s investment in roads and infrastructure would be amply repaid through $2 billion in taxes and royalties. First Nations in the region have been divided on the question of mining impacts, but Wynne promises them representation on a private–public development corporation that will coordinate the broader project. The additional promise of jobs, training, and local investment is tantalizing for First Nations that are among the least affluent in Ontario. For a provincial economy that has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs in recent years, and for First Nations who sit upon one of the most significant untapped mineral complexes in Canada, development seems a win-win for everyone.

History nevertheless offers a cautionary tale to the unbridled enthusiasm for mineral-led economic and social development in Canada’s remote regions. In an essay published two years ago in the journal Environment and History, Dr. Arn Keeling and I described how in the 1950s very similar boosterish rhetoric was applied to the a vast lead-zinc deposit at Pine Point on the southern shores of Great Slave Lake. In private meetings, at Royal Commission hearings, and in press statements, federal government bureaucrats suggested that development at Pine Point would lift local First Nations out of the moribund fur trade and stake their economic future on modern wage labour. According to the federal government and the mining company Cominco, the only thing needed was public investment in a rail corridor linking northern minerals to southern markets. The railroad, according to public officials, would be a great development project, stimulating mining development throughout the Northwest Territories with immense benefits for local First Nations and the national economy. The federal government ended up spending close to $100 million (about $790 million in today’s dollars) on the Great Slave Lake Railroad project, a spur extension of the Mackenzie highway from Hay River to the mine, and also a dam to provide hydro power for the project.

How successful was the railroad and the mine as a spark for northern development? There is no doubt that the mine, which operated from 1964 to 1988, was a highly profitable operation. But as a stimulant to broader social and economic development in the NWT, the mine and the railroad remained at best a limited success. Neither the government nor the mine developed local training and recruitment programs, while the highway was not extended westward to the Chipewyan and Metis community of Fort Resolution until 1972, severely limiting people’s access to the wage labour opportunities at the mine. Archival documents, oral interviews, and the work of other scholars suggests (Deprez 1973, Macpherson 1978), First Nations participation at the mine was extremely limited. Add in a lack of royalties and other financial benefits for First Nations plus the widespread local feeling that the cleanup of the mine was inadequate, and many people from Fort Resolution (and to an extent the Katloodeeche First Nation reserve near Hay River) believe they were stuck with a large environmental mess while receiving virtually no economic benefits from the mines. The Great Slave Lake Railroad failed to stimulate any other significant mining activity in the region; the spur line between Hay River and Pine Point was pulled out shortly after the mine closed due to low commodity prices in 1988. Although many people (Native and non-Native alike) have suggested that the town of Pine Point was one of the best places they had ever lived (a sentiment expressed in oral interviews we conducted and the Goggles brilliant NFB multi-media project), this too was fleeting as the town was completely demolished after closure. For many Aboriginal people in the South Slave region, the Berger Inquiry’s assessment of Pine Point as a form of mega-development that failed to provide significant economic benefits for the permanent residents of northern Canada holds still rings true across the many years since the mine shut its doors.

History, of course, never repeats itself in exactly the same way. The Ring of Fire does at least seem to hold more long term mineral potential than did the South Slave region. In addition, mining companies today typically sign Impact and Benefit Agreements with northern Native Communities affected by development, providing in some cases guaranteed jobs, financial benefits, and training opportunities (though these agreements are confidential so in many cases analysts lack knowledge of the details).

On the other hand, the case of Pine Point does suggest at least some reason for caution about the boosterish tone coming from Ontario politicians and industry enthusiasts. Public (and other) investments in mining ventures are always inherently risky, and geographically remote projects such as Pine Point and the Ring of Fire are particularly vulnerable to any significant slide in commodity prices, which can leave in their wake idle mines and shuttered communities. Also, our research on Pine Point and other mines suggests that mine labour often does not replace hunting and trapping activities, but often Aboriginal people move between the two economies in accordance with the relative advantages of each and the cultural priorities of individuals and communities. Mine employment is not necessarily a panacea for northern Native people, and First Nations concerns about the impact of mining activity on the hunting and trapping economy in the Ring of Fire should not be dismissed as reflections of “backwardness” in the same way as they were at Pine Point. At the very least, the lack of training and education opportunities at Pine Point offer an important warning to First Nations in the Ring of Fire, who are right to be wary of any rapid development timeframe that may neglect the pressing training, education, social impacts and environmental issues within their communities. The prevailing wisdom seems to be, if you build it–in this case a highway or a railroad rather than a ballpark–then they (the mining companies) will come. But unlike the dreamy world of W.P. Kinsella, simply building it does not necessarily wash away all problems, particularly the social, environmental, or economic problems that First Nations in the Ring of Fire currently face or that may be introduced as a result of mining activity.


Works Cited

Paul Deprez, The Pine Point Mine and the Development of the Area South of Great Slave Lake, (Winnipeg, MB: Center for Settlement Studies, 1973).

Janet E. Macpherson, “The Pine Point Mine,” in Northern Transitions, Volume I: Northern Resource Use and Land Use Policy Study, eds. Everett B. Peterson and Janet B. Wright (Ottawa, ON: Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, 1978), 65-110.