By Justina Ray and Cheryl Chetkiewicz
Read the article published in The Star
The current wave of protests in support of the Wet’suwet’en is about respecting Indigenous rights, but also about responsibility — our collective responsibility to protect increasingly endangered ecosystems and some of Canada’s most intact natural areas.
Failing to consider the value of such areas — for people, for biodiversity, and for our climate — before making development decisions is increasingly leading to conflict.
We are on the cusp of a similar situation in Ontario, where plans to build roads to the Ring of Fire in the far north are being pursued in a way that similarly ignores the big picture.
Access roads into the Ring through one of the world’s largest remaining areas of intact boreal forest are being examined through separate impact assessments as if these roads had no relation to one another or won’t have a combined impact on wildlife or First Nation communities. These projects could ultimately pave the way for over 100 years of mining.
These narrowly focused impact assessments have already generated their fair share of conflict and continue to ignore the bigger cumulative impacts of multiple projects. These roads aren’t just being built so communities have somewhere new to drive — they are the route to opening up a vast wild area and Indigenous homelands for mining as well as forestry and hydroelectric development.
Roads and the access they create can dramatically reshape an entire region and understanding these consequences is vital if we want to sustain nature’s services, the Indigenous communities that depend on them, and the benefits they provide to all Ontarians.
There is a great deal at stake in the far north. This area is an enormous carbon storehouse, keeping millions of tonnes of carbon locked in soils, peatlands and vegetation, and includes the second largest peatland complex in the world — the Hudson Bay Lowlands. This carbon is already at risk from increasingly severe forest fires and permafrost melting due to climate change, which means we need to carefully consider how and where to introduce industrial activities that will release even more of this centuries-old carbon and methane.
Areas like the far north in Ontario provide wildlife with the secure habitat they need to adapt to changes due to development and climate change. Caribou are in decline across many parts of Canada, and Ontario’s far north represents an important stronghold that has so far seen minimal disturbance and habitat loss.
Wolverines now rely almost exclusively on this northern area that lies beyond the most heavily logged forests in the province. Songbirds still nest in the tens of thousands in Ontario’s boreal forest, but many species are facing steep declines, while only in the far north are lake sturgeon populations able to continue to move freely in river systems unimpeded by dams.
As scientists who have conducted research in this area, we have been calling for a regional assessment that would evaluate cumulative impacts of development in this globally important area far more effectively than the current project-by-project approach. Fortunately, the federal government agreed with the requests filed by Wildlife Conservation Canada, Aroland First Nation and the Osgoode Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic.
It remains to be seen whether the province is open to replacing its “open for business” mindset with one that welcomes careful planning for sustainability. With mineral prices at record lows, we have time to consider the global significance of the region and First Nations rights.
Processes that are just exercises in checking boxes rarely lead to positive results. Until we can weigh the consequences of our actions on the environment and people, demonstrate a willingness to ask hard questions about how development projects impact our climate and biodiversity commitments, and actually consider the trade-offs, we will remain on a well-trodden road to conflict.
A regional assessment represents a chance to design an equitable process that allows for proper consideration of what is at stake in the far north — for First Nations, the environment, the economy, and ultimately Canada — and a real opportunity to find a new path forward.