In situations where development threatens the integrity of the natural environment, typically most green advocates would oppose it, often in collaboration with Native groups. At the very least, they would demand a moratorium until protection was in place and First Nations’ concerns were addressed.

“Isn’t that a smart thing to do?” Chetkiewicz asks. “Isn’t that what people should be clamouring for, to get our ducks in a row before development starts?”

But widespread, almost desperate, support for mining constrains calls for a halt. Like people in Aroland, most of those in the six First Nations whose territories are at least partially within the Ring of Fire are eager for development. They anticipate cash payments and jobs, as well as rail routes or all-weather highways that would end their expensive dependence on aircraft and winter ice roads. In the wake of logging and mill closures, residents of northern towns view the mining boom as their salvation.

“I know that a lot of the environmentalists would like us just to stop,” Natural Resources Minister Linda Jeffrey tells me. “But to be honest, I’ve heard both sides. I’ve had a lot of northern mayors come down to see me and ask that we not slow things down because a lot of northern communities have been struggling … and they’re afraid that if we slow things down to a stop, their communities will die.”

But most environmentalists and scientists are not calling for a complete halt. The Far North Science Advisory Panel report, for example, recommends that the Ring of Fire be treated as an exceptional case. “We haven’t said ‘stop it,’” says David Pearson, an earth sciences professor at Sudbury’s Laurentian University who chaired the panel. “We don’t live in la-la land,” but, he continues, “what’s happening can’t be taken as a template or precedent for the way development takes place” elsewhere in the north. “They could initiate a land-use planning process right now that would provide stability and certainty for everybody,” says Anna Baggio, of CPAWS Wildlands League. “If you plan properly at the outset, you can avoid so much conflict down the road.”

From my perch in an aging Otter floatplane Esker Camp seems a lonely outpost in a green sea of forest and bog that washes the horizon in all directions. We’ve flown more than two hours north from Nakina over roadless bush to get here, the journey broken by a brief stop in Marten Falls First Nation, an impoverished, isolated community of widely scattered, weather-beaten bungalows.

This is the heart of the Ring of Fire. The camp, operated by Toronto-based Noront, is a T-shaped clearing, criss-crossed by plank walkways that link white tents – each with four narrow beds – and drab-green service buildings. Forty-five gallon drums sit on large plastic sheets with 41-centimetre high sides to contain spills. Drilling rigs – boxlike yellow structures surmounted by dark blue metal towers – occupy a handful of satellite clearings. The rigs drive hollow metal rods as deep as 2,000 metres below the wet surface, pulling up sample cores that reveal how much valuable material is embedded within the earth. About 100 holes have been drilled, at $500 per metre. That work is to continue until year-end.

Here, no one is allowed to forget that time is money. The drills – named after Cash, his wife, June, their son, John Jr., and the singer’s famous “Boy Named Sue” – operate around the clock, each run by a driller and helper working 12-hour shifts. Another 45 or so people, mostly men, provide technical support, food, basic medical care and cleaning services in an operation that, by bush standards, is spotlessly maintained. The boardwalks are essential: off them, you would be halfway up your calves in boot-sucking mud. A helicopter drones incessantly, ferrying people and supplies between the camp and its floatplane dock on nearby Koper Lake, and to the rigs.

A gravel airstrip – one of two in the Ring of Fire – and another camp are a few minutes’ flight away. The second camp is on lower ground than Noront’s and built closer to McFaulds Lake than provincial regulations allow, raising fears of water pollution. Both camps installed permanent structures without the required permits. KWG’s railway evaluation involves helicopter-supported drilling. Other companies’ camps and rigs dot the Ring of Fire.

Intended to provide all-season alternatives to ice runways, the airstrips required an environmental assessment. That regulation was ignored until environmentalists and First Nations complained and the government closed the facilities until assessments are completed. (In a twist that illustrates the complexity of the issues relating to the Ring of Fire, a company partly owned by Marten Falls First Nation built the airstrip near Esker Camp.)

The First Nations communities have insisted all along on being shareholding partners with the mining companies, and equals with the provincial government. The First Nations want final say on what occurs on their traditional lands, which cover almost the entire far north. Marten Falls First Nation Chief Eli Moonias has called for “strict environmental controls and accountability.” He and others have complained that they are not being properly consulted about or included in Ring of Fire projects and as a result vow to oppose the Far North Act.

Last winter, community members blockaded two ice airstrips for two months to draw attention to their demands. This summer, chiefs from across Ontario’s far north forced cancellation of the hearings on the legislation, accusing the government of imposing a too hasty timetable.

“Staking and new exploration activities must be paused until we have had an opportunity to complete land-use plans, which would outline where these activities could take place,” said the seven communities belonging to the Mushkegowuk Council, whose territories are on several rivers downstream from the Ring of Fire. “If [the Far North Act] passes without our free, prior and informed consent, we will not recognize the application of the law in our territory,” echoed the five chiefs who comprise the Shibogama First Nations Council, in the province’s northwest corner.

Provincial politicians say they agree that planning and protection are crucial, as is First Nations’ involvement. “They want to be asked; they want to be consulted,” acknowledges Jeffrey. “My goal is to make sure they have the capacity … and that we help them to determine how development will occur.”

The Far North Act would clarify and strengthen rights set out in century-old treaties and “mark the first time in Ontario’s history that a requirement for First Nations approval of land-use plans on public lands would be embedded in law,” the minister told the legislature last spring.

In the meantime, however, the government has let events overtake its legislation, creating a vacuum that forces companies and First Nations to haggle on their own.

The experience of Attawapiskat First Nation, on James Bay northeast of the Ring of Fire, demonstrates the pitfalls of haphazard deal making. Some people in the community of about 2,000 say they got the modern equivalent of a pouch of tobacco in an agreement struck five years ago with De Beers that paved the way for Ontario’s first diamond mine. De Beers agreed to pay $28.5 million to the community over 12 years, which translates into less than $1,200 per person annually, and much of the money goes to the costs associated with monitoring the agreement, including fees for lawyers, consultants, administrators and rent. Most of the approximately 100 or so jobs available at the mine are catering and maintenance positions – what Chief Theresa Hall describes as “menial, low-paying tasks.”

Flaws in the De Beers deal and challenges within the community have combined to virtually eliminate job training, and De Beers is purchasing most of its supplies and services from outside companies, reducing local business opportunities, says resident Jackie Hookimaw Witt. Water is continually drained from the boggy mine site into the Attawapiskat River, a local source of fish. Although evidence is inconclusive, many residents fear that the fish are contaminated due to high levels of mercury that’s mobilized when bogs are disturbed.

Without question, the impacts of the agreement and conflict over its merits have caused divisions in Attawapiskat, as resentment simmers between people without jobs and people who are employed.

History is in danger of repeating itself: despite complaints about aggressive timetables, several communities have signed agreements with mining companies allowing exploration in exchange for jobs and cash. Marten Falls, for example, gets two dollars for every metre Noront drills – a provision that probably has delivered less than $300,000, although exact figures have not been made public.

Fissures among First Nations communities have also appeared in the face of big development. Residents within the Ring of Fire are in more of a hurry for development than people who live outside it, who might feel its impacts but are not, as yet, assured of any benefits. Even the definition of protection is contentious. “We want to be in a position to determine what lands will be protected or open to resource development,” says Stan Beardy, grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents most of the far north communities and some farther south. “But the view of the government is that land is protected from any activity, including resource or other development and use of motorized vehicles, to preserve the natural setting far into the future.”

“Our definition,” Beardy explains, “is that we’re saving something today for future consideration, leaving the option for future generations to decide what they need for their survival. The government’s idea is absolute; ours is more flexible, depending on the circumstances of the time.”

Perhaps a pause would be a good idea right about now, until at least most of the environmental, social and political knots are untied. Admittedly, a slowdown would find little favour in northern Ontario. But if development is to be done “properly,” the provincial government must accept its responsibilities so that the Ring of Fire becomes neither another environmental disaster nor a precedent for the rest of the far north.

“I have questions about the way exploration and development are taking place,” Pearson says. “They’re doing business as usual. If it takes more time to get the chromite to market, those years are a small price to pay.”

“Nobody is anti-mining,” says Schultz, “but we want to ensure it’s compatible with broader landscape-based objectives. The Ring of Fire shouldn’t proceed until land-use plans are in place. Planning must be in sync with development. Otherwise there may be a point at which we have to say, ‘this has to slow down, or stop.’ The potential for damage is enormous, but the potential for getting it right exists.”

At the mine site, Megan leads the way to large piles of broken drill cores dotted with bits of rusting metal. A few minutes later, he is reminiscing inside a small, decomposing log cabin at a lush, peaceful site alongside O’Sullivan Lake.

Consolidated Louanna Gold Mines built the cabin as a site headquarters. When the company moved out, it gave the place to Megan for trapping, and he still returns frequently. The attraction is obvious: the low, heavily treed shoreline opposite the cabin reveals a complete absence of human activity. A marshy bay to the right teams with chirping frogs. The large, flat, crystal-clear lake is renowned for its abundant pickerel and lake trout.

Megan’s relationship with the mining industry, like that of many other people in the far north, is layered and complex, marked by gains and losses – a description that could equally apply to the Ring of Fire mining projects and the hope and fear their presence elicits. All the players are standing at a crossroads contemplating an extraordinary landscape that is at risk of becoming a one million-hectare environmental mess that may or may not continue to support its wildlife, its inhabitants and their descendents for a long, long time into the future.

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Peter Gorrie is a Toronto-based freelance writer specializing in environmental and energy issues, and the environment columnist for The Toronto Star.