These days, Bob Rae is a busy man. The former Premier of Ontario and Liberal Party Leader is doing more than your average political retiree, and I’m not talking about his induction into the School of Public Policy and Governance as a Distinguished Senior Fellow. Rae has assumed the position of Chief Negotiator for the Matawa First Nations as discussions continue to move forward with the Crown and developers over the future of Ontario’s Ring of Fire — which may prove to be his most difficult task to date.
The Ring of Fire is a 5,000 square kilometre region in remote Northern Ontario that is home to the most promising mineral development opportunities for Canada in over a century. The enormous chromite deposits were first discovered there in 2008. However, for current development to proceed, an agreement with the Matawa First Nations Council must be reached.
While the Matawa First Nations do not necessarily oppose development, they require a thoughtful assessment of where they truly believe their best chance for success lies. For many First Nations communities the prospect of development brings hope for a future of prosperity and self-governance. As prominent Aboriginal advocate and lawyer Robert Freedman said, “Sometimes the best way to ensure benefits for future generations is by cutting deals with companies, because governments are not doing anything for them.”
Bob Rae argues that First Nations are actively examining the range of possibilities. “If there is development, and this is something that is still being actively discussed, First Nations [are] no longer prepared to get the crumbs off the table,” he says. While the Matawa First Nations have adopted a pragmatic approach to negotiations, Rae maintains that “opposing the whole project is not off the table, and from what I can tell, it will not be.”
“First Nations [are] looking for real partnership, joint management, [and] a different relationship in which power and responsibility are shared,” Rae adds.
If First Nations communities want to be active players in the region, they have a strong legal backing to do so. The 2004 Supreme Court decision Haida Nation v. British Columbia affirmed the Crown’s “duty to consult” with Aboriginal peoples when they contemplate conduct that could adversely affect their communities. While accommodation also plays a big part in the duty to consult, the Crown is not obligated to reach an agreement. According to the case, the duty is grounded in “a meaningful process of consultation in good faith.”
Despite these limitations, Rae is hopeful for the future. “I think the full meaning of consultation and accommodation is being tested,” he says. “The law is evolving. But we’re in a better place than a decade ago.”
First Nations communities are beginning to regard the duty to consult as a tool that can be used to generate meaningful discussions with a less hierarchical decision-making structure. These negotiations have led to the creation of legally-binding Impact Benefit Agreements (IBA), which attempt to provide fiscal compensation to communities that lay claim to the affected lands.
For Rae, however, that may not be enough. “[My] sense is that First Nations want to go well beyond the traditional concept of an IBA, here and across the country,” he says, arguing that instead of an agreement they are after a true partnership. For a partnership to happen in the Ring of Fire, however, both sides must work to foster a sense of equality while maintaining mutually beneficial relationships.
Creig Lamb is a Master’s of Public Policy Candidate (2015). He holds his BA in Communications at the University of Ottawa and is interested in Aboriginal and environmental policy.