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Canada’s environment minister could be in trouble if Ottawa doesn’t change its course on the Ring of Fire

Canada’s environment minister could be in trouble if Ottawa doesn’t change its course on the Ring of Fire

The Canadian Press

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CONVERSATION

This article was originally published by The Conversation, an independent, non-profit source of news, analysis, and commentary from academics. You can find disclosure information on the original site.

Author: Dayna Naidine Scott, York Research chair in Environmental Law & Justice for the Green Economy, York University Canada

A new, region-wide approach to assessing the potential effects of northern mining development is in danger of falling off the rails in the vast peatlands of Ontario’s James Bay Lowlands. It may be Steven Guilbeault (Canada’s new activist Minister of Environment and Climate Change) who will have to lead it.

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Ontario has long been interested in opening up the Ring of Fire because of its mineral deposits. Dreams of a new nickel mine are now driving plans for an electric vehicle manufacturing center and Wyloo, Australia’s leading mining giant, to take over major mining stakes.

However, the controversial and conflict-filled proposals for all-season roads and other infrastructure required to transform this remote and ecologically sensitive region have sparked significant controversy.

Regional approaches

Canada’s government joined the fray in February 2020 when the minister of environment announced a regional assessment of the Ring of Fire. It was the first major study of this kind to take place under the controversial new Impact Assessment Act.

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Experts in environmental assessments welcomed the decision. They noted the new framework’s ability to partner with Indigenous governing bodies, and to assess climate implications of proposed developments.

The regional assessment was important because it allowed for extensive consideration of future options and scenarios. This would allow for the determination of which projects should proceed, how they should sequence in time, and how adverse impacts could possibly be minimized.

However, the Impact Assessment Agency released at the end of 2021 the terms of reference proposed for that assessment. All hopes of such a strategy were dashed. Minister Guilbeault was contacted by five chiefs of five remote Indigenous communities near the Ring of Fire deposits in January to request that they retract the terms of reference and restart.

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I am the co-director of a clinic at a law school that supports Neskantaga Nation’s chief Wayne Moonias. He was one of five people who appealed for the minister to his support. I can confirm that the chiefs stated clearly that the terms of reference exclude Indigenous Peoples from any other roles than token ones.

Permanent adverse effects

The Terms of Reference with Ontario were likely negotiated over the past year by Canada’s Impact Assessment Agency of Canada. It reports to the Minister of Environment. They were likely to be in place before Guilbeault was appointed to the portfolio. However, the agency could have set Guilbeault up to fail.

These terms suggest that Canada and Ontario can jointly lead a major impact assessment process within an area occupied exclusively by Indigenous Peoples, without including Indigenous partners in its governance. This is simply untenable.

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For residents of the region, the roads are extremely dangerous. Many of the Indigenous communities located near the Ring of Fire deposits are so remote that they can only be accessed by rail or, for a few months, by ice road. All-season roads are being promoted by two communities who have become road supporters. They promise connectivity, better access to education and health care, and lower construction costs.

However, all-season roads are also strongly opposed by neighbouring First Nations that could be affected by them. They want their jurisdiction over the land to be recognized by the Crown before any development of their homelands begins.

Many First Nations and other observers have noticed the potential for serious adverse consequences, including long-lasting cumulative effects on climate and peatlands, further social and culture disruption to harvesting rights, life ways, and the risks of sexual or gender-based violence to Indigenous girls and women.

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Approving new roads is a decision for the opening of a remote region in far north. It is a decision that will not be reversed.

Terms of reference

2019 was the year that the federal government’s expert panel reported.

Indigenous groups that do not have modern treaties should be able and willing to carry out their own 1/8impact assessments3/8 processes. Co-operation agreements should be made with these groups. The federal 1/8impact assessment3/8 governance and processes should be supportive of Indigenous jurisdiction.

Many of the panel’s excellent recommendations were rejected and the Impact Assessment Act became a political lightning rod. It was debated in both the House of Commons as well as the Senate over the years. These specific powers to work with Indigenous governing bodies in assessments survived and were included in the new act.

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Statements made by Catherine McKenna, then Minister of Environment and Climate Change, during Parliamentary Committee deliberations on the Impact Assessment Act indicate that the government intended to create a legislative scheme that would allow for co-operation with Indigenous jurisdictions in impact assessment, in the spirit reconciliation.

The new Act considers such scenarios where it might be appropriate to make an Indigenous governance body a partner jurisdiction on assessment, that is, a decision maker on par with other jurisdictions like Canada and Ontario. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Article 18) states that Indigenous peoples can participate in decision-making when decisions affect their rights. This is not a legal right to be consulted; it is a legal right to make decisions.

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Despite these new powers being made available in the Act, and despite the passage by Parliament of the Implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (211) – the draft terms of reference show that Canada is not willing to take these tools and use them.

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It’s not too late

The first comprehensive regional assessment under the new act was the Regional Assessment in the Ring of Fire. It is a significant ecological area that is inhabited exclusively by Indigenous Peoples. The leaders of the affected communities have made it clear to the Impact Assessment Agency that their willingness to be partners in this assessment.

We have no hope of ever making good use if Minister Guilbeault cannot apply the new legislative tools in this context.

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The long-term stewards of lands are the most affected by development in the Ring of Fire. They have the greatest stakes. They depend on the region’s ecological integrity for their livelihoods. They have vital knowledge that is not available for impact assessments. Their deep knowledge is what gives rise to their governing authority.

Lisa Beaucage of the Chippewas Unceded First Nation wrote in the Globe and Mail, that the federal government should recognize that its policies towards Indigenous Peoples merely extinguish the fires it has set.

Minister Guilbeault should recognize that Canada is just starting another fire by using this model for the regional assessments. There is still time for Canada to pull back and retrace its course.

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Dayna Nadine, Scott was the main author on one submission to the Minister requesting a Regional Assessment on behalf the Osgoode Environmental Justice & Sustainability Clinic. She supervises students in the Clinic, who continue to conduct research for Neskantaga Nation. Professor Scott also received research funding through the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to support projects related to the Ring of Fire and impact assessment.

This article is republished under a Creative Commons License from The Conversation. Disclosure information is available at the original site. Read the original article: https://theconversation.com/canadas-environment-minister-is-headed-f https://theconversation.com/canadas-environment-minister-is-headed-f h

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