How economic reconciliation is tied up in Ontario’s Ring of Fire

In remote Ontario, Marten Falls First Nation hopes to move past more than 100 years of subjugation, as it opens the door to critical minerals development and an all-season road that will change their lives

As crazy hectic as your life may be, it likely doesn’t hold a candle to that of Bruce Achneepineskum. He is chief of Marten Falls First Nation, an extremely remote Anishinaabe community on the banks of the Albany River in Ontario’s far north, about 400 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. As chief, Mr. Achneepineskum wears many hats. He oversees his council. He’s a mentor, a spiritual figure, an artist and a fire marshal. He’s a father of two grown children from his first wife, and of a 17-month-old boy with his current partner.

The needs in Marten Falls are immediate and stark. There is a severe shortage of homes. A boil-water advisory has been in place for 18 years. There are endemic social problems that never seem to go away – youth suicide, alcoholism and opioid addiction.

On top of all of that, Mr. Achneepineskum is dealing with a massive international mining company that is making big promises about delivering riches to the impoverished community from the undeveloped Ring of Fire critical minerals project, which is located on the Marten Falls nation’s traditional territories. He’s also working with the province of Ontario and the federal government on the construction of an all-season road that would provide year-round access to the area, and bring with it a massive increase in the standard of living.

Right now, apart from a brief window in January and February when a winter road is open between Marten Falls and Nakina, about 135 km to the south, the community is only reachable by air. “It’s going to be a huge transformation for our community,” Mr. Achneepineskum said. “It’s going to improve access to services, and improve access to the outside world.”

For the past four years, Marten Falls, alongside Webequie First Nation, has been leading federal and provincially-mandated environmental assessments (EAs) that are studying the impact of roads that would connect the communities to the highway network hundreds of km to the south. Marten Falls and Webequie are also co-leading EAs on a road into the Ring of Fire that would provide a route for Wyloo Metals Pty Ltd., the Australian mining company that owns the most promising assets in the region, to get its ore to market.

The road planning process so far has been arduous. Not least of all because of a recent Supreme Court decision that ruled Ottawa doesn’t have nearly the regulatory power it thought it had to oversee planning around large resource projects, casting uncertainty over where the road projects go from here.

Almost two dozen First Nations have been consulted as part of the planning process. While Webequie and Marten Falls are by and large in favour of new roads and mining in the Ring of Fire, several other First Nations have serious reservations. In the summer, Neskantaga First Nation, which is part of The Land Defence Alliance, staged a rally in Toronto to protest against mining development in the Ring of Fire, alleging Neskantaga hasn’t been properly consulted.

Bruce Achneepineskum sees benefits for Marten Falls in the Ring of Fire, but some are not so optimistic. Members of Neskantaga and other Anishinaabe nations marched on the Ontario legislature on Sept. 7 to voice concerns about mining. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL; CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Ontario government has thrown its weight behind the Ring of Fire, and has committed to paying roughly half of the at least $2-billion that is needed to fund the roads. Premier Doug Ford has even said that he’s willing to “jump on a bulldozer,” if that’s what it will take to get construction underway.

Ontario has made great strides in building out its electric vehicle battery manufacturing infrastructure in the past year, but there are few Canadian companies that mine or refine the materials needed for battery factories. China dominates the supply chain of EV minerals such as lithium, cobalt and graphite, and has shown it is willing to exert that power for economic leverage against the West.

Knocking up against all of this are the extremely long lead times needed for major Canadian resource projects. That’s partly because of the incredible amounts of red tape that must be navigated, and the many years projects typically take to build. Even if everything were to magically fall into place, the earliest roads into the Ring of Fire would be completed is the mid-2030s.

The effects of colonialism and isolation have made life hard for many in Marten Falls: Housing is scarce, poverty is widespread and a boil-water advisory has been in effect for 18 years.

The effects of colonialism and isolation have made life hard for many in Marten Falls: Housing is scarce, poverty is widespread and a boil-water advisory has been in effect for 18 years.

For First Nations, the original inhabitants of Canada, whose history goes back thousands of years, the waiting game for economic reconciliation is nothing new.

In 1905, Marten Falls signed The James Bay Treaty. The land pact with the federal government robbed Indigenous people of almost all of their traditional territories in that part of northern Ontario and banished them to reserves. Much of the basic services that were promised by the Crown to Marten Falls were never delivered, and revenues from resource sector exploitation weren’t shared.

Since the 1960s, rivers around Marten Falls have been dammed for generating power. No consultation with the community ever took place, traditional hunting and fishing grounds were destroyed, and economic benefits from development weren’t shared with Indigenous people.

Mr. Achneepineskum was born in 1965, in a trapping tent, delivered by his father, about 40 km from the present-day Ring of Fire mining camp. Back then, his family lived entirely off the land – hunting moose, fishing sturgeon and trapping wolverine. His earliest memory is gazing up at the sky in awe at the jets that streaked across it, and the wispy exhaust fumes they left in their trail, never realizing that one day he’d be tearing across those same skies trying to improve the lot of his people.

His voice drops to barely a whisper as talks about an older brother he never met. Alexander died as a baby and his burial site, as is the custom, is located on higher ground, over the riverbanks, so his spirit can guide the family safely as they approach.

Driving to Marten Falls is impossible except in January and February, when the winter road to Nakina is open; the rest of the time, fly-in travel is the only option. Mr. Achneepineskum says an all-season road would make public services much better.

Mr. Achneepineskum missed being sent away to residential school by one year, but his two older sisters went. Marten Falls epitomizes the great trauma of that time. It was the home of Chanie Wenjack who died in October, 1966, at age 12, from starvation and exposure as he tried to get back to Marten Falls after escaping from residential school.

Marten Falls is located at the junction of the Ogoki River and the almost 1,000 km long Albany. Two hundred and eighty people live on the reserve today. Band members moved to the current site in 1926 because that’s where Hudson’s Bay Co. (HBC) had a trading post. For hundreds of years, up until the 1970s, band members traded caribou, moose, beaver skins, whitefish and pickerel with HBC in exchange for tools, canvas, tents, guns and bullets.

“We got ripped off so many times,” said Vida Baxter, daughter of Elijah Baxter, a previous chief of Marten Falls. To receive a single gun, her grandfather needed to stack up a pile of beaver skins that reached as high as the end of a musket before HBC considered it a fair trade.

Marten Falls wasn’t treated fairly either in the early history of mining development in the Ring of Fire. After a high-grade nickel deposit was discovered in 2007 by Noront Resources Ltd., a prospecting boom ensued. Indigenous people have rights under Canada’s Constitution to be consulted about mining activity, but the companies did nothing of the sort. In droves, they brought in helicopters and drills, with little or no regard for traditional hunting and trapping grounds. Ontario ignored the community’s concerns and Marten Falls was eventually forced to stage a blockade against Noront at the mining camp.

In the aftermath, Noront improved its practices considerably, and slowly trust has been built up. Wyloo, the privately-held company controlled by Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest, which acquired Noront’s critical minerals projects in 2022, is off to a good start with Marten Falls. For the most part, relations between the two have been cordial.

Mr. Achneepineskum knows that a share of the mining revenues generated by Wyloo, which he expects will come in the form of a portion of the taxes paid to governments, will lift the standard of living on the reserve immeasurably. On top of that, there should be lots more jobs, and lucrative contracts for Indigenous owned-businesses that will service the mining.

“Our position is to work with industry,” Mr. Achneepineskum said. “We want to be part of the development. We want the benefits that come from that development. We want to be involved in the development from all stages.”

The Albany River winds through parts of Northern Ontario where peat deposits keep large stores of carbon locked in the ground. Ring of Fire skeptics are worried mining could disturb those deposits.

The Albany River winds through parts of Northern Ontario where peat deposits keep large stores of carbon locked in the ground. Ring of Fire skeptics are worried mining could disturb those deposits.

In mid-December, down by the riverbanks of the Albany in Marten Falls, it’s a winterscape of glistening mid-calf-high snow, ice glazing over the rapidly-flowing river and haunting evergreen trees off in the distance.

One big concern raised by environmentalists about development in the Ring of Fire is that pollution may destroy fish habitats in the rivers around Marten Falls, and disturb carbon-storing peat that is ubiquitous in this part of northern Ontario.

There could well be ecological damage, including species extinction from development, the chief acknowledges. But environmentalists, he says, aren’t considering the economic benefits, and how they could lift people out of poverty. He bristles at the suggestion that the environmentalists know better. “What you basically are telling us is, ‘No, you’re not allowed to make that decision for yourself’ and, ‘You don’t need a road and you don’t need to progress and grow as a community.”

Earlier in the year, Mr. Achneepineskum published an editorial in Northern Ontario Business that took aim at people working in non-governmental organizations (NGOs). “All or nothing is the bar they set for us,” he wrote, “when those who run NGOs sit in their comfortable urban homes in Toronto and Montreal with all the amenities of modern life that are provided by industries like mining. I am glad to say that we do not suffer from the same cognitive dissonance.”

Stocking the Marten Falls community store can be difficult without all-year roads to bring in new goods.

Stocking the Marten Falls community store can be difficult without all-year roads to bring in new goods.

Potentially even more significant to the community than mining in the Ring of Fire would be the construction of roads connecting Marten Falls to the outside world. Apart from the basic freedom to drive in and out year-round, the price of goods will drop because it’s much cheaper to truck items in than pay air freight charges. The variety of household items for sale in the community’s only store will broaden, because bulky items can’t be easily flown in. If someone has a medical emergency, they may be able to get out when the planes can’t fly. The housing crisis should ease as building supplies could be trucked in when needed.

Like many fly-in First Nations communities, the housing conditions are appalling. Andy Coaster, who works in maintenance at the elementary school, lives in a three-bedroom house with three generations of his family (five adults and 11 children). In Marten Falls, people are forced to live in places they shouldn’t, such as in the old, dilapidated water treatment plant.

All the while, some of the legacy housing stock is crumbling. There’s a condemned home in the center of Marten Falls with water damage. Fire has claimed an average of one house a year over the past decade. That’s in large part because Marten Falls does not have a fire station, or a fire truck.

On the edge of town is a clear-cut area where Mr. Achneepineskum wants to build three sixplexes that would take some of the pressure off. The plans were submitted 10 years ago to Indigenous Services Canada but have not been approved yet. Even if he can build the units, there are doubts about how they will be powered. That’s because the diesel-powered generators the community relies on for electricity are at maximum capacity.

A student leaves Henry Coaster Memorial School, where things have steadily improved since the Marten Falls chief declared a state of emergency in education last year.

A student leaves Henry Coaster Memorial School, where things have steadily improved since the Marten Falls chief declared a state of emergency in education last year.

Under principal Tom Recke, the junior kindergarten to Grade 8 Henry Coaster Memorial School has made good progress in the past 15 months. While he’s still short of teachers, the staffing situation is better than it was. Henry Coaster offers a fuller range of programs, thanks to partnerships with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and other groups that have brought in special needs assistants, healthy food (the children are fed breakfast and lunch at school) and instruction in traditional music.

Before coming up here last year, Mr. Recke worked for 27 years for TDSB. Like many southerners, he had no idea what he was getting into. His first half hour on the reserve, he ran into a bear. The maintenance man, Andy Coaster, scared the bear off.

“Bravest man I ever met,” Mr. Recke says with a traumatized look in his eyes. Fifteen months on, he has learned a lot, but still has a ways to go. “I have a hard time reconciling the beauty of the land with the hardship people here endure on a daily basis,” he says.

Principal Tom Recke says Henry Coaster Memorial is still short of teachers, but things are improving. Michelle Smith, a community development adviser, prepares meals for Henry Coaster Memorial students.

The school has hosted Wyloo and Mr. Recke likes what he sees so far. “They’ve made a lot of effort to try to become involved in the life of the community,” he said.

Although Wyloo proposed to introduce a course for the kids about why mining matters, Mr. Recke is pushing for something more tangible. What he’d really like Wyloo to pay for is fire suppression for the school, or a new playground, or a baseball diamond to replace the one where recently-built teachers’ residences went in. The chief only got the residences built by the federal government after he declared a state of emergency in education last year. Previously, the teachers, who all come from the south, were forced to stay at the retirement residence.

When children reach high school age, they have to leave the reserve because there is no high school in Marten Falls. The boarding out with a host family to the south in Thunder Bay or Geraldton is tough on families back home. Many students who leave never return to live on reserve permanently, because opportunities are not there.

Laurenn Coaster (Andy Coaster’s niece) is an outlier. The 22-year-old moved back to Marten Falls in August, after studying human services foundations in Algonquin College in Ottawa. She has complicated feelings about being back. She found work at Henry Coaster as the secretary and makes enough to cover her bills. But in the city, she had her own apartment. Here, because of the housing crunch, she lives with her mom.

Ms. Coaster also has mixed feelings about mining development. She’s particularly troubled that Neskantaga, which is located about 160 km northwest of Marten Falls and is a fellow member of the Matawa tribal council, is so opposed to development.

Last March, Neskantaga chief Wayne Moonias told Wyloo that if the mining company dares to cross the First Nation’s river system without its consent, “you’re going to have to kill us.” (Mr. Moonias has since been succeeded as chief by Chris Moonias, no relation).

“It’s heartbreaking that we’re not on the same page,” said Ms. Coaster. “It feels very overwhelming. As Matawa members, we may or may have not neglected that relationship with Neskantaga.”

Laurenn Coaster, left, returned to Marten Falls after her postsecondary studies in Ottawa, and has mixed feelings about the mining debate in the area. Elizabeth Achneepineskum, right, sees mining as a path to self-sufficiency for people in Marten Falls.

Looking ahead to possible mining development, she also wonders why more isn’t being done now to make sure Marten Falls members are in a better position to benefit.

“The number one thing when I think about mining is jobs. Well, how are we preparing the youth that are here today, the 18-plus, to go and get those jobs?” she said. “Because now’s the time to do it in order to get those high-paying jobs, or to be the one on top that is possibly the manager or the boss.”

Elder Elizabeth Achneepineskum, the chief’s 84-year-old mother, also wants her people to benefit from jobs in the Ring of Fire. Ms. Achneepineskum can be routinely spotted bombing around the reserve on her ATV. On her feet when she spoke to The Globe and Mail were pointed-toed moccasins that she made herself out of moose hide.

When the chief was a boy, Ms. Achneepineskum moved the family from Marten Falls to Constance Lake First Nation. There, he was able to attend a provincially-run public school, which she considers far superior to the federal school system.

At Henry Coaster, she taught native language classes for 19 years, and witnessed firsthand children who got left behind. She describes a placid boy who was desperately in need of extra help, but never got it. When he boarded out for high school, it was ascertained that he was only at a Grade 3 level. In his early 20s, he drank himself to death.

Ms. Achneepineskum is involved in planning around mining development in the Ring of Fire. Through her work for the past 10 years on a provincial Community based land use planning team, she’s worked with Ontario to amass a digital database of land on Marten Falls traditional territory that will be off limits for development.

She’s also done her homework on the Australian mining industry and its less than pristine treatment of the country’s own Indigenous people. “I saw that it was horrible, horrible how they have treated the Indigenous people,” said Ms. Achneepineskum “They treated them worse than dogs.”

Some people in Marten Falls are anti-mining, and content to live off the state, she said. But this is something she cannot abide. “They’re sitting there in their house drawing welfare, and their kids are on welfare,” she said. “The way to get out of it is to be self-sufficient.”

She has conflicted feelings about the capitalist-minded Wyloo, “They have enough money,” she said. “When they die, the money’s just going to be sitting there. They’re not going to take it with them.”

But like her son, she ultimately sees mining development as something that can improve the lives of people on the reserve.

“What I want to see is my grandchildren, great grandchildren and everybody else’s, that they have access to the riches that are there in the land.”

Tent poles for a teepee stand outside Henry Coaster Memorial. When Wyloo erected another teepee for a ceremony at the mining camp, Ms. Achneepineskum pointed out an important flaw in their construction methods.

Tent poles for a teepee stand outside Henry Coaster Memorial. When Wyloo erected another teepee for a ceremony at the mining camp, Ms. Achneepineskum pointed out an important flaw in their construction methods.

Kristan Straub, Wyloo’s chief executive officer for Canada, has hosted Elder Elizabeth at the mining camp in the Ring of Fire. As a gesture of respect for Indigenous members of its workforce, Wyloo built a ceremonial teepee. When shown the tepee, Ms. Achneepineskum noticed the boughs had been laid in the wrong direction.

“She took the time to show them how to do it differently,” said Mr. Straub. “And they said, ‘Well, we’re just trying to get it done,’ and she said back to them, ‘If you’re gonna do something, you’ve got to do it right.’”

For Mr. Straub, getting it right when it comes to Indigenous relations is paramount.

Mr. Straub is a member of Henvey Inlet, an Ojibwe First Nation. His Indigenous mother grew up in Killarney, Ont., south of Sudbury. His grandfather on his mother’s side was Art Solomon.

“My grandfather did a tremendous amount of social work for First Nations individuals who were incarcerated,” said Mr. Staub. “As you probably well know, the rate of incarceration for First Nations individuals is dramatically higher in Canada than any other population.”

Mr. Straub believes he is well-placed to understand the justices suffered by Indigenous Canadians and address them by acting in the best possible manner as CEO. The company is also prepared to put its money where its mouth is. If its critical minerals mine gets built in the Ring of Fire, Wyloo says it will award a minimum of $100-million in contracts to indigenous-owned businesses.

Bruce Achneepineskum points out Marten Falls on a map on his phone.

Bruce Achneepineskum points out Marten Falls on a map on his phone.

Back in Marten Falls, Chief Bruce Achneepineskum has his eye on the future, and a better life for band members, as he reflects on the injustices of the past.

By leading road projects into the Ring of Fire, and being deeply involved in the oversight of mining, Marten Falls has a seat at the table around resource development in its traditional territories, and the chance to benefit from it in a life-changing manner, for effectively the first time since The James Bay Treaty was signed, almost 120 years ago.

“All that we are under the Indian Act is more or less wards of the state, dependents of the state, which we never signed up for under the treaty. We’re totally against it,” said Mr. Achneepineskum.

“We want to be self-determining First Nations, working with other First Nations that are self-determining, and reaching agreements with the governments. That’s what the treaty was all about, to live together, and share in the benefits of the land and the resources.”