Northern Connections, Ontario Nature’s new program based in the far north, is bringing isolated communities together to create a unique environmental voice that speaks for the big boreal landscape.

By Conor Mihell

Sometimes, environmental controversy spurs even the most reticent citizens to action. Soft-spoken Ted Schintz says he was “indignant” when he caught wind of a proposal to fill a healthy coldwater lake with toxic mining by-products near his hometown of Marathon, in northern Ontario. A startling loophole in the federal Fisheries Act allows for the reclassification of bodies of water as “tailings impoundment areas,” offering mining companies a cheap and easy solution for dealing with mine waste.

Toronto-based Marathon PGM Corporation, the proponent of the platinum, palladium and copper mine, wanted to dump more than 60 million cubic metres of tailings into pristine Bamoos Lake over 11 years of mining. As compensation, the company promised to rehabilitate the storage area for warmwater fish species once ore deposits were exhausted. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Schintz, who has lived on the north shore of Lake Superior since the 1970s. “There’s something wrong if someone is allowed to take away a deep, cold lake capable of supporting trout in favour of a shallow, polluted pike pond.”

But Schintz was daunted by the prospect of speaking out against a mine that promised much-needed jobs for his community, which is suffering from chronic unemployment in the wake the 2009 closure of a pulp and paper mill. “For a while, I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’” he says. “But then someone else mentioned that they were not happy with the situation, either. That got the ball rolling.”

Schintz’s diffidence is a common affliction among residents of northern Ontario who consider challenging development. The resource-rich, sparsely populated and ecologically significant region that sprawls across 968,000 square kilometres north and west of Muskoka has a turbulent economy. “There’s such a long and established history of booms and busts in the north,” says Peter Rosenbluth of Ontario Nature’s Thunder Bay office. “This has bred an increased environmental awareness, but at the same time it’s often a bit of a subdued effort because of the strong feeling that you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you.”

This is but one challenge that Rosenbluth faces as coordinator of Ontario Nature’s Northern Connections program, funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation through its Future Fund. He is also dealing with the fact that promoting sustainability in a geographically immense region is difficult. A complex, interconnected array of environmental threats – from waste management to forestry, mining, road building and energy developments – affect isolated communities and intact boreal ecosystems of global significance.

The two-year-old Northern Connections initiative seeks to spread environmental awareness and mobilize conservation efforts working in partnership with Environment North, the Sault Naturalists of Ontario and Michigan, the Anishinabek of Gitchi Gami, Food Security Research Network and the Northern Ontario Sustainable Communities Partnership. The program organizes events, coordinates workshops and offers online lectures on topics such as nuclear energy and forest tenure reform. Its annual “Sustainable Communities in the North Conference,” held last February in Thunder Bay, included keynote speakers Peter Robinson, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, and author and sustainable development advocate Hunter Lovins.

Early in his tenure, Rosenbluth was surprised to discover more than 100 environmental organizations active in communities across Ontario’s north. For instance, a group in Sioux Lookout, a northwestern town of 5,200, successfully lobbied for a ban on bottled water at municipal events and convinced the local council to pass a bylaw to eliminate plastic shopping bags, creating the first outright “bag ban” in the province. Meanwhile, community gardens and local food initiatives are sprouting around the region. As well, far-north First Nations communities, such as the Matawa Tribal Council, are applying treaty rights to ensure adequate consultation with prospective developers to gain greater control over natural resources on their traditional lands.

Resident polls support Rosenbluth’s work and challenge the Ontario government’s blind rush to develop areas like the far north’s “Ring of Fire” mineral deposit. A 2007 survey, for example, revealed that the environment was the number two voting issue among northern Ontarians, second only to health care and twice as important as the economy. Similarly, a 2010 poll found that 86 percent of respondents agreed that the protection of ecosystems should be emphasized before industrial projects are approved. “The thing that stands out is that northerners care about the environment and nature,” says Rosenbluth. “Even after an economic crisis that hit the north particularly hard, the environment still matters as much as ever. People want to make sure that we maintain a relatively healthy, intact boreal ecosystem and that natural values are protected before we commit to new activities.”

Schintz, along with fellow Marathon residents Michael Butler and Teri Burgess, and Bonnie Couchie, a friend from the nearby Ojibways of the Pic River First Nation, formed Citizens for a Responsible Mine in Marathon (CRM) last spring. They turned to MiningWatch Canada, an Ottawa-based nongovernmental organization, for a crash course in mining policy, started a blog and shared their message with people in the community. Their Facebook site racked up hundreds of supporters. All the while, they took the unusual tack of stressing their support for mining; they knew it would be suicidal to be in outright opposition to development. “We decided that if we didn’t define who we were, someone else would do it for us,” Schintz recalls. “Quite often and quite early we said that we supported the mine, but we didn’t support irresponsible mining activities.”

CRM focused on tactfully engaging Marathon PGM and bringing out facts about mining, such as the precedent setting implications of turning a healthy lake into a tailings pond and the importance of properly funded mine closure plans. “Until we got involved, the narrative was tightly controlled by the proponent,” says Butler, a fisheries biologist. “Bits of corporate spin were being printed verbatim by the newspaper. What we were able to do is present a counterbalance to that corporate message. It became a public dialogue instead of them controlling the message.”

Even though CRM’s campaign galvanized local support, Marathon PGM’s sudden shelving of the Bamoos plan last July came as a surprise to everyone. In an e-mail to CRM, Raymond Mason, the company’s vice-president of operations, said, “After consultation with First Nations, government agencies and residents of Marathon and surrounding communities, it became clear that the loss of the fishery in Bamoos Lake was undesirable.”

For Schintz and his colleagues, it was a “great victory” that brought them one step closer to creating something the mining industry has yet to achieve: a carefully planned mine that imposes the least possible environmental impact, respects regulations and does not hold taxpayers accountable for costly, long-term, government-led cleanups once production ceases. Says CRM’s Butler, “Hopefully, the example we set here will be one that shows that even in a depressed economy there’s an opportunity for people to speak up to make sure that environmental concerns are taken into account.”

Rosenbluth often talks about northern Ontario’s “doppelganger identities” when he opens a presentation about Northern Connections. Paradoxically, northerners desperately need the jobs that development brings, but they also have personal ties to the landscape and are loath to see it tarnished. According to Anne Bell, Ontario Nature’s senior director of conservation and education, when it comes to land-use planning, the Province should mobilize northern residents’ intimate knowledge of the land. “Good decisions need to be grounded in local knowledge of the landscape,” she notes. “Northerners know that landscape best.”

The success of Schintz’s Marathon group shows that northerners have the capacity to instigate change in their communities. After his first crack at environmental activism, Schintz is eager to stay involved. “Now that I’ve been drawn in, enjoyed some success and made some good friends, I’m more encouraged to take on something again in the future or lend my support to a cause elsewhere,” he says.

Ultimately, this is the attitude Rosenbluth wants to foster across the north, and he hopes his growing list of networking events will bring more concerned citizens together to build on the successes of others. “I’m convinced that change won’t come from established groups elsewhere,” Rosenbluth says. “It has to come from the grassroots. If the outcome of Northern Connections is that there’s an increase in the ability to speak out about the environment, that will be a significant thing in itself. We will enable the conservation voice in northern Ontario to be stronger and louder.”

Freelance writer Conor Mihell is based in the northern Ontario community of Sault Ste. Marie.