This article was published in Canada's National Observer (subscription required)
With a click of a mouse, mining interests have laid claim to more than 72,000 square kilometres of land in northern Ontario over the last five years.
That is an area close to twice the size of Switzerland.
Since 2018, it has been possible to stake a mineral claim in Ontario online by outlining an area on a digital map and paying a small fee. WCS Canada has been tracking mining claims, and with the current political push for critical minerals – minerals needed for a variety of technologies – these mining claims have exploded, with the area under claim in the province more than tripling in the last five years.
These areas, claimed for the rights to the minerals that may lie beneath, are the Homelands of Indigenous Peoples, who are not consulted about mining claims under Ontario’s antiquated “free entry” mining laws. The British Columbia Supreme Court recently ruled that this kind of process, where mineral rights are granted automatically without any consultation, is unconstitutional. Many First Nation communities in Ontario are also making it clear that they are going to resist mining activity if there is not adequate consultation and free, prior, and informed consent from communities.
Only a fraction of mineral claims ever become active mines and the vast tracts of land and water covered by mining claims in northern Ontario have an uncertain and unproven economic future. However, these lands and waters do have known cultural and natural value, as food sources and cultural touchstones for Indigenous Peoples, as wildlife habitat, as globally important carbon stores, and as the headwaters of intact, free-flowing rivers. Mining is subject to regulation, but Ontario is also the only jurisdiction in Canada that does not require environmental assessments for mines. That means it’s possible for this land to be claimed without consultation, and ultimately mined without a thorough evaluation of impacts and consideration of alternatives.
One contentious area for claims staking is a region hundreds of kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay that mining companies have dubbed the Ring of Fire. Claims continue to be staked in this region more than two decades after mineral exploration began, but mining will only be financially viable if transport corridors are built. Impact assessments are underway for various sections of a proposed 400-500km region-opening road, but governments and companies haven’t agreed on who should foot the multi-billion-dollar bill.
The Ring of Fire is also a region rich with peatlands. These mossy, waterlogged ecosystems are important for storing carbon, which will be released into the atmosphere if the peat soils are disturbed by development or if there are changes to the water levels, water flows, or surface vegetation. Analyses show that the minerals from the Ring of Fire are not needed for technologies that can help us reduce our climate impact, but disturbing and destroying the carbon-rich peatlands will mean Canada cannot meet its climate change commitments.
We do need minerals to make the vital shift to green technologies. However, we need to acquire these minerals in a planned way, gathering evidence to make informed choices about the trade-offs between environmental costs and potential benefits, and using forward-looking processes that respect Indigenous rights to free, prior, and informed consent. We also need to invest in ways to better use and reuse the minerals that are all around us, in products that can be recycled, in existing mining waste that can be reprocessed, and in areas that already have road access to get mineral commodities to market.
Instead of working to weaken the provincial Mining Act, the Ontario government should be updating it to ensure mining in Ontario is meeting modern ethical and environmental standards. Instead of racing to court to try to create a temporary gap in protection while the federal Impact Assessment Act is revised, Ontario should be embracing a comprehensive regional assessment process to work with First Nation communities to determine what level of development is wanted for the Ring of Fire area and affected communities. And most importantly, instead of racing ahead, blind to massive climate and cultural impacts, the government should assess what is really at stake with mining in northern Ontario.
Constance O’Connor is a conservation scientist who leads WCS Canada’s research and conservation program in the Ontario Northern Boreal landscape. She is also an adjunct professor at Lakehead and Laurentian Universities. Her work focuses on understanding the cumulative impacts of climate change and development on freshwater fish and freshwater ecosystems, and working with decision-makers to bring evidence to planning, management, and policy.