By Peter Gorrie
Buried treasure – copper, nickel, diamonds, chromite – lies beneath northern Ontario’s vast boreal landscape, prompting a frenzy of unchecked mining activity despite the provincial government’s two-year-old promise to safeguard half the boreal region and promote sustainable development in the other half. Will the Ring of Fire become Ontario’s tar sands?
Standing beside the metal-clad head frame of a former gold mine in the middle of the broad northern
Ontario landscape near Aroland First Nation, Andrew Megan Sr. tells me a story that, he says, took place some 70 years earlier.
His father and uncle, working their trapline, found a rock flecked with gold. The men showed the rock to a non-native prospector and, when asked, showed him where they had come upon it. In return, he gave each a pouch of tobacco.
Months passed – how many is unclear – but one day as Megan, his father, uncle and relatives sat in their bush camp, they heard a mechanical roar. They scattered as a bulldozer crashed through the trees and brush. The next year, work began on a mine that continued, off and on, until 1984. Prospectors had been exploring and staking the area for more than a decade, but the rock found by Megan’s father and uncle pinpointed a potentially rich vein of gold that spurred development of the site. Over the next four decades, a series of companies, including Osulake Mines and Consolidated
Louanna, attempted to determine the extent and value of the ore body and start operations, but the mine didn’t produce any gold for sale until near the end of its life.
Megan, now 72 and a respected elder, recounts the story to make a point he considers crucial. The events he describes are from a time when the notion that native land rights might exist beyond reserves, and that compensation should be paid for incursions into those territories, wasn’t a consideration. The mining activity, while offering some benefits, did damage he does not want repeated.
Grey-haired, slow-moving but still nimble, Megan surveys the decaying buildings, rusting fuel barrels, piles of rock and bits of metal that scar a landscape he knows intimately. He points to the black pipes that once poured water and waste through the mine’s underground tunnels to nearby O’Sullivan Lake and wonders aloud why the site wasn’t properly cleaned up and why the company was allowed to discharge contaminants that he believes decimated the lake’s pike, pickerel and trout.
Megan says he was employed at the mine, mainly as a labourer, working both above ground and as deep as 150 metres below the surface. Aroland is near Nakina, a town at the fingertip of the road that points north from Highway 11, four hours northeast of Thunder Bay. People from both communities earned a good living at this mine and another nearby that extracted iron ore. There were also jobs for loggers and in a pulp mill and railway maintenance. But during the 1980s and 1990s markets dried up and the mines and mill closed. Now, young people have nothing to do, says Megan angrily.
Recent discoveries of gold, diamonds, chromite, nickel, copper and other minerals might bring jobs back to Ontario’s northern boreal, the pristine wilderness that blankets the upper half of the province. Claim stakers and exploration teams have flocked to an area nearly twice the size of PEI known as the Ring of Fire. Aroland is south of it, but some mines might nevertheless hold job prospects for Megan’s community. “I want development,” he says, but this time, “it has to be done properly.”
Megan is right. Resource extraction on this scale – in an area covering some 10,000 square kilometres on which crowd 4,600 mining claims – must be done very, very carefully. After all, sustainable mining is, arguably, an oxymoron. Instead, the environmental impacts of this industry must be assessed in terms of thresholds and an attempt must be made to determine how much damage surrounding ecosystems can withstand before collapsing.
Ontario’s far north is a remarkable landscape that has been safeguarded by its remoteness. Not anymore. According to Queen’s Park, mining in the Ring of Fire is the fiscal solution to the north’s economic maladies, but the environmental price could be steep in this land of lakes and forests, home to at-risk woodland caribou, and short-eared owls as well as millions of migratory birds. Politicians, mining companies, environmentalists and First Nations agree, theoretically, on the importance of preserving the region’s ecological values and the rights of its inhabitants to determine what happens in their homeland. All profess a need for consultation and planning. But the frenzy of exploration and staking within the Ring of Fire reveals a wide gap between visionary statements and events on the ground that, if left unchecked, will have far-reaching consequences for all of northern Ontario. The ripple effect extends beyond our province. The area slated for destruction is a massive storehouse of carbon that would be released at a time when we are wrestling with ways to reduce emissions and would, in all likelihood, have global implications.
“How all of us think through the Ring of Fire will be a key test for the entire region,” observes Caroline Schultz, executive director of Ontario Nature. “It’s the real thing. It’s going to be pretty challenging to make it work so that everyone benefits.”