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First Nation partnerships will lead the way north

Marten Falls and Webequie pursue their socio-economic development goals in shepherding Northern Road Link environmental impact process

If your First Nation community harbours great ambitions to become a major project proponent, Gordon Wabasse offers some sage and simple advice.

“Be prepared.”

Wabasse, the lands and resources director of Webequie First Nation, participated in a panel discussion on the Ring of Fire at the inaugural Indigenous-led Projects Forum in Toronto, Sept. 27.

Wabasse and other James Bay regional leadership spoke of his community’s groundbreaking journey as one of the two Indigenous proponents overseeing the design and environmental impacts of a proposed all-season road into Far North, an Ontario first.

In seeking a better way of life, the communities of Webequie and Marten Falls boldly stuck their collective necks out to be the target of criticism by some neighbouring communities that are against the road and oppose mining-related development in the Ring of Fire on environmental grounds.

But the two First Nations have pushed back in asserting their sovereignty, territorial and treaty rights to community and economic wellbeing.

“When we do projects inside of a reserve, nobody bothers us,” said Wabasse. 

“Once we go outside of a reserve, we get hit by other communities with Section 35 of the Constitution,” the section which recognizes and affirms Aboriginal rights.

“We do have rights, too. We’re Indigenous proponents. We have every right to practise and pursue our own economic development, and I respect that, and that’s what the other communities should expect.

“Don’t take it personally, take it constructively. That’s the way our forefathers, our ancestors, would’ve done,” added Wabasse. 

His community of 1,000 is located in the James Bay lowlands, 75 kilometres by air from the mineral-rich ground known as the Ring of Fire, an area coveted by many of the world’s mining companies. It has never seen industrial development, much less permanent, all-season, roads. 

Webequie is fronting the environmental impact studies of the Webequie Supply Road Project, a winding 110-kilometre proposed route connecting the community with the mineral exploration sites that could one day become multi-generational nickel, copper and chromite mines. If developed, it will deliver local jobs, huge business spinoffs and prosperity to the community.

Together with neighbouring Marten Falls First Nation to the south, they are collaborating on a longer road system called the Northern Road Link, a shared project that involves Marten Falls getting its own community access road. The Link would connect the Webequie road with the 200-kilometre Marten Falls-to-Aroland road. 

These two small communities are overseeing a total of six federal and provincial environmental impact assessments, now underway. These processes could stretch anywhere from three years to seven years to a decade out before road construction actually begins and commercial mining starts.

The promise of a permanent road link to the south is “incredibly appealing” to the  community, said Bruce Achneepineskum, chief of Marten Falls, a fly-in community of 900 on the Albany River.

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Like other remote communities experiencing severe housing overcrowding, drug and alcohol problems, Marten Falls leadership said a connection to the Ontario highway system in the south will make a huge difference. It will lower the cost of transported freight, provide better and easier access to education and health care benefits, and offers economic opportunities for its young people. The average age in Marten Falls is 30.

“We’re trying to kick off something that becomes a trend,” said Achneepineskum.

During the last winter road season, 30 transports, heavily laden with concrete and steel, arrived in Marten Falls for the construction of two projects. With climate change shortening the seasonal haul over the frozen muskeg and rivers, it’s a very risky time for all concerned.

“That’s a lifeline for us,” said Achneepineskum, but it’s not conducive to building and sustaining a community. It demonstrates the need for permanent roads. 

But if government and mining want access to minerals in the Far North, and if the transportation infrastructure crosses their traditional lands, Achneepineskum said, “we have to be first and foremost at the table” to have a say in what will happen and how it will unfold.

In the early days of the staking rush in the Ring of Fire, after chromite was discovered in 2007-2008, area Indigenous communities were shut out of the picture in being able to participate.

Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse said it took a community blockade of the exploration grounds to get their point across. 

“We stopped everything, saying this is our traditional territory and we want to be part of what’s going to happen in the near future.”

That started the process of the short-lived Regional Framework Agreement that ultimately died with the Wynne government. But the spirit of Indigenous participation continues under the Ford government with the funding of the environmental assessment (EA) processes led by the communities and their environmental and infrastructure consultants, AECOM.

“Gone are the days when First Nations had token partnership and joint ventures,” said Achneepineskum. “We actually want to become owners of large projects and we’re confident that it can be done.”

Achneepineskum said there are plenty of examples of successful industry partnerships across Canada where First Nations have exercised their inherent rights to lands and resources.

“We know the land; we want to preserve the land; we want to preserve the area as much as we can. We know there will be impacts to the area, but FNs will practise the stewardship in the area.”

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Lawrence Baxter, a Marten Falls elder and community advisor, said the community had to do a “lot of soul searching” to get to this point. 

Once there was consensus to proceed to the road EA stage, the highly detailed process forced them to take stock of the water, air and what exists on the land. It meant regular meetings with the community — made challenging by the pandemic — to ask what they thought about the road and how to plan a route that avoids culturally significant places. 

Achneepineskum, now in his eighth year as chief, calls this journey a “learning experience for me.”

His advice to other leaders is to seek community support of your goals through visioning forums and presentations to let members know what you plan to do. It’s important to lean on the wealth of experience from community members, especially elders, for direction.

They may identify issues that may arise and allow you to gather strength to move people and the community forward in a good way.

“Chief and councils really don’t have all the answers. Our job as community leadership is to seek out the best way to move forward,” said Achneepineskum.

But progress is not always an easy path. There are some Indigenous communities both upstream and downstream of the Ring of Fire and the proposed road projects that feel they haven’t been adequately consulted and are staunchly against development.

Through a combination of Western science with traditional knowledge and values, Achneepineskum added they are “setting the bar high” in guiding the road EA projects, incorporating time-honoured Anishnaabe principles to move the project along while respecting the concerns of their First Nation community neighbours.

“If we don’t do this project right, if we don’t answer their concerns and address those concerns within our processes, we’ll be failing."

For other First Nations concerned about the EA process, Baxter assured them that they're doing everything possible to troubleshoot and anticipate problems on possible environmental impacts to the land and rivers.

Gordon Wabasse places the onus on community members to stay informed, be attentive, and stay up to date on what’s being discussed locally.

Many times, Wabasse said, he sees information newsletters left unread, piling up in a corner of the local airport. During community engagement sessions on road project-related matters, it’s always the same few faces turning out. 

During one session, Wabasse remembers a women walking in he hadn’t seen in years. She was astonished to learn what was being planned.

“This is the first time I’ve heard about this,” Wabasse recalled her saying.

“Here we are as community, we’ve been talking about this over a decade.”

Still, Wabasse said he encourages his staff in land-use planning to do their best to get the word out.

“It’s hard to fill that Constitutional bucket of that duty to consult if nobody wants to listen.”

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