By Carol Mulligan, Sudbury Star
TIMMINS - Michael Gravelle wasn't sharing insider information about how talks are progressing between the government of Ontario and First Nations closest to the Ring of Fire.
But he telegraphed some heavy hints in an end-of-year conversation about the development of the rich chromite deposits located 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.
Consultations being led by retired supreme court justice Frank Iacobucci for the province and former Ontario New Democrat premier and federal Liberal leader Bob Rae, representing the Matawa Tribal Council, are vital part to moving the Ring of Fire forward, said Gravelle.
They are progressing well, the minister of Northern Development and Mines said several times during a telephone interview.
And while he didn't want to "presume the end of the discussions" between the First Nations and the province, Gravelle said he hopes his government will be in a position "very soon" to announce a framework agreement between the two parties.
"That will be, quite frankly, an historic day," said Gravelle. "It will be a way of signalling how much more work we have to do in the future, but it will be a very strong piece of the process."
If he could spend more time on something it would be trying to help people understand how important these consultations are in the overall success of the Ring of Fire, said Gravelle. That's why "we've been so focused on having Mr. Rae and Mr. Iacobucci work together well."
It also is a reflection of how success can be measured in developing the Ring of Fire.
When a framework agreement is in place, it will inform discussions about how the development corporation Gravelle announced in early November will function, he said.
The corporation, which will be comprised of leaders from government, industry and First Nations, will look at how to build the infrastructure necessary to mine and move $60-billion worth of chromite out of the Ring of Fire.
Gravelle has had good preliminary discussions with industry partners, he said, and it wants them to advise government on how the development corporation should function, what its scope should be and how it should be governed.
"But I can't emphasize how important I think it is that we work (first) with the First Nations," said Gravelle.
Many observers believed the Ring of Fire was dealt a crippling blow when Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources announced it was suspending work on its $3.4-billion chromite mine and smelter for a variety of reasons, including a lack of clarity in its dealings with the Ontario government and a battle with KWG Resources over claims for a transportation corridor.
Toronto-based mining policy analyst Stan Sudol said he has heard talk that Cliffs is "quietly trying to sell their assets in the Ring of Fire.
"If that is true, then expect the project to be significantly reconfigured by a new owner, and the probability of a ferrochrome smelter being built in Sudbury would be very grim and dim."
Cliffs had planned to build a $1.8-billion ferrochrome processing plant near Capreol at the former Moose Mountain Mine site.
KWG is expected to begin a new drilling program on its Black Horse deposit in early January, a deposit Sudol said has the potential to be as big as Cliffs' Black Thor. Black Horse would be an underground operation and would have less impact on the environment, which might make the approval process happen more quickly.
"Notwithstanding all the political rhetoric from both the provincial and federal levels of government, I am optimistic some sort of deal will get made so the necessary east-west road and north-south railroad will be built," said Sudol.
With $60 billion worth of minerals — and some geologists predicting the Ring of Fire deposits could be worth twice that — governments will have to act.
Both levels of government must continue to build capacity in the surrounding First Nations communities, said Sudol, as well as resolve the resource revenue sharing agreements and invest in badly needed infrastructure and social services.