About the Ring of Fire

The area dubbed the “Ring of Fire” is a 5,000 square kilometre area of land in the Hudson- James Bay Lowlands located in Treaty #9 in the far north of Ontario. The term ‘Ring of Fire’ is the name given by the president of a mineral exploration company to this mineral deposit which other t business executives and politicians have referred to as the “oil sands of Ontario.” 

The Government of Ontario estimates that there is a multi-generational potential of chromite production and significant amounts of nickel, copper, and platinum in the Ring of Fire, which they hope to access through various mining projects. Notably, no feasibility study has been carried out that would support these claims. From 2015-2022, the company that had acquired the most holdings in the region was Noront Resources. In 2013, Alan Coutts, President and CEO of Noront, called the Ring of Fire projects a “once in a lifetime opportunity” that would provide not only jobs but infrastructure, like roads and broadband internet, to Indigenous people living in remote communities. 

In March, 2022, after a lengthy bidding war with BHP metals, Noront shareholders voted in favour of the proposal from Australian mining giant, Wyloo Metals, to purchase Noront’s remaining shares. In a December 2021 press release, Luca Giacovazzi, CEO of Wyloo Metals, said “This is an exciting time to be an investor in future facing metal projects. Battery and hydrogen technologies are unleashing the full potential of renewable energy and the supply of critical metals simply isn’t keeping up. This is the greatest shift in the global economy since the industrial revolution.”

What’s the problem?

Though there are many strong advocates pushing the Ring of Fire projects forward, serious concerns have been raised about both the illegitimate process and potential harmful outcomes of this development. Some of these concerns relate to:

  • The potential environmental harms of resource extraction on the James Bay Lowlands in general and the Attawapiskat River system in particular.
  • Thousands of claims for mineral exploration have already been approved for the Ring of Fire. These claims, together with the proposed mine development, the roads and power generation needed for operations, present a high likelihood of cumulative and negative impacts to the environment and health of the muskeg, boreal, and Indigenous communities.
  • The divide-and-conquer tactics used by the provincial and federal governments with First Nations; in particular, the fact that not all impacted First Nation communities have given their free, prior, and informed consent for these projects to move forward.
  •  The Ring of Fire is located in the second largest peatland (muskeg) in the world. This ancient muskeg is a significant carbon sink, meaning it has been storing carbon (a greenhouse gas), and helping to stabilize the climate by keeping the carbon emissions out of the atmosphere. Developing this peatland means losing the climate protection it provides to us all.
  • The impacts of the proposed ferrochrome smelter, which was important to Noront, but  may not be a priority for Wyloo. The facility, if pursued, would process chromite. Two Indigenous communities have each rejected the proposed project.

What’s the plan?

Wyloo’s focus is on nickel and while it remains to be seen to what extent the company keeps their sights on the multiple chromite deposits in the Ring of Fire region, it is clear that chromite does not feature as centrally in its planning, as it had for Noront, who had once called its chromite assets  “an opportunity of a generation.” In addition to the Noront acquisition, Wyloo has various other nickel, copper and base mental investments in both Australia and Canada, including an announcement in February, 2022 of a 4.9 million exploration program in the Nunavik region of Quebec. Wyloo’s plans are set firmly on its newly acquired Eagle’s Nest mine, a nickel-copper-platinum deposit in the Ring of Fire region. The Eagle’s Nest project is currently in the “permitting” phase, and is projected by some to enter commercial production by the end of 2027.

Mining at the Eagle’s Nest project cannot begin until a road is built, because base metals are too heavy to be transported by plane. Between completing the permitting process and constructing the gravel road across very swampy, boggy terrain, these roads could take up to 10 years to finish. The leadership of some First Nations in the region feel that new access/supply roads could be of great benefit to their communities; currently, Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations are taking the lead on environmental assessment processes for the Marten Falls Community Access Road and Webequie Supply Road, respectively. For remote fly-in communities, a road means more access to affordable food, visiting family, water treatment infrastructure, and other vital resources. These access roads create pathways to the mine, but more importantly they can offer access to products and infrastructure that communities need.

What should I pay attention to?

There are many factors contributing to whether or not the Ring of Fire moves forward. So, what should people who care about Indigenous sovereignty, environmental justice, and corporate accountability pay attention to in the news and on this website in order to understand what’s going on?

Environmental assessment processes

As a resource- and infrastructure-intensive development, the Ring of Fire needs support — both financial and political — from both provincial and federal governments. Paying attention to government stances on and financial contributions to the Ring of Fire will help in understanding the likelihood that the project will come to fruition.

The Ring of Fire cannot move forward, however, without making it through multiple Environmental Assessment (EA) processes, at both the provincial and federal levels. Not only do the proposed mining projects need approval, but so do the multiple access road projects as well.

The James Bay Lowlands region is a huge, fragile carbon reservoir that cleans the air we breathe and helps to regulate the planet’s temperature. These peatlands act as “carbon banks”, which means that the peat absorbs carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. First Nations communities refer to the peatlands as “the Breathing Lands.” The peatlands’ ability to do this is dependent on having the right amount of water present: too little and the peat dries out and releases the carbon dioxide; too much and the peatlands emit methane. Dried out peat also becomes terrifying fodder for wildfires. “We’re the water people,” Mike Koostachin of the Friends shares in this interview with CBC’s What on Earth, noting that “climate change is already happening in our area.”

All of these risks are explained in an illuminating piece of investigative journalism by Kenyon Wallace, which goes on to say:

The Far North Science Advisory Panel notes that while eskers could be used for road construction, they are important for caribou migration and provide dens for wolves, wolverines and other animals. Part of the road will traverse low-lying bogs or swamps”, and Coutts acknowledges this will make an impact.

[As cited in Wallace, K. (May 27, 2019). Open for business. Toronto Star.]

Relations with Indigenous communities impacted by the Ring of Fire

Many First Nation communities are located near the proposed area of development, including:

  • Aroland First Nation
  • Constance Lake First Nation
  • Eabametoong First Nation
  • Ginoogaming First Nation
  • Long Lake 58 First Nation
  • Marten Falls First Nation
  • Neskantaga First Nation
  • Nibinamik First Nation
  • Webequie First Nation

These 9 First Nations are members of a Regional Chiefs’ Council called the Matawa First Nations, and all were signatories to a Regional Framework Agreement with the provincial government in 2014. Instituted during Kathleen Wynne’s time as premier, this agreement laid out a process of negotiation related to mining and other developments in the area known as the Ring of Fire. When Doug Ford came into office, he tore it up. Wynne was often accused of using divide-and-conquer tactics even under the guise of a community-based negotiation process; now, the government’s focus on working “bilaterally” with “willing” First Nations has made that strategy even more explicit.

Not all Indigenous communities located nearby to the Ring of Fire are in support of mining in the Ring of Fire and related development or the process by which it’s being carried out. In the context of some of Canada’s longest-standing boil water advisories, concern about the impacts of large-scale industrial development in a fragile ecosystem makes perfect sense. Noront was publicly effusive about its relationships with Indigenous communities, but it’s important to pay attention to who is being left out of the equation. Notably, it’s the communities that have been most vocal in expressing their concerns. In 2020, the federal government announced that it would be taking a “regional” (read: holistic) approach to assessing the impacts of all projects and infrastructure related to Ring of Fire development. 

Everybody paying attention to the Ring of Fire should be calling on the federal government to follow through on that commitment to facilitate a robust assessment of the cumulative effects on the whole region, in partnership with affected Indigenous communities.

We should also be asking the provincial government to do the same, and return to a mode of decision-making that is community-driven and includes all those potentially impacted by this massive project. Click here for the “Call for a moratorium in the Ring of Fire.” 

Ferrochrome smelter project

When Noront was driving the mining exploration in the region, its plan involved processing the minerals extracted from the Ring of Fire at a functional and affordable smelting facility. After a drawn-out process in which four Ontario cities vied to “win” the privilege to host this facility, Sault Ste. Marie was chosen as the locale. Noront had leased a smelter site from Algoma Steel for 99 years, and was in the process of doing a multi-year environmental assessment before Wyloo Metals acquired Noront. It is unclear whether this facility will be prioritized in Wyloo’s future plans.

The smelter project has faced strong community opposition from Saultites who are worried about the environmental and health implications of a smelter in this city, as well as local First Nations (on the north side of the so called “Canada-US” border) and tribes (on the south side of the border) expressing concerns about jurisdiction.

It will continue to be important to pay attention to decisions regarding the future of this key facility for chromite processing in Sault Ste. Marie.

Wyloo’s finances and it’s parent company, Tattarang

While it doesn’t always make news, it is definitely worthwhile to pay attention to the state of a company’s finances and corporate structure. Wyloo Metals is an investment company focused on mining development, exploration and investment. Formed in 2015, it is owned by Tattarang, one of Australia’s largest private companies and the financial force behind the company. Tattarang is owned by Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, Australian billionaire and the Chairman of the infamous mining company Fortescue Metals Group (FMG). Forrest has been criticized for his engagement with Indigenous communities, notably FMG’s legal battles with traditional landowners over mining and land rights issues, its failure to consult with Indigenous communities in good faith, and its destruction of Aboriginal sacred sites. He has also been referred to as a  “master greenwasher” and it will be important to pay attention to how he might frame mining development in the Ring of Fire as a climate solution. 

It will be important to watch how Wyloo Metals lobbies the Canadian and Ontario governments. Wyloo has hired lobbying firm Aurora Strategy Group Inc. and one of its lobbyists at the federal level is former Minister of Indigenous Affairs (2013-2018), David Zimmer.   

Green extractivism & a just transition

The Ontario government and mining industry alike have been referring to the Ring of Fire as central to the province’s transition toward a greener economy, specifically through the manufacturing of electric vehicles. The Ring of Fire contains minerals that the government has identified as being critical to the manufacturing of electric vehicle batteries and energy storage systems, such as cobalt, lithium, nickel, and copper. 

It will be important to carefully pay attention to the language used by the government and industry when discussing electric vehicles and green energy. The mining industry is increasingly framing itself as part of a just transition but is a major contributor to climate change. We are critical of mining projects, such as the Ring of Fire developments, that are being pushed forward without community consent and in ecologically sensitive spaces. These mining projects are not part of a just transition. Any transition that relies on the manufacturing of electric vehicles alone, and in doing so, risks causing harm to First Nations communities and the environment, is not a just transition.