Mining was an issue but can a $1-billion promise inspire action on the Ring of Fire?
by Greg Klein
Repeated accusations of corruption didn’t stop Ontario voters from re-electing the provincial Liberals of Kathleen Wynne on June 12, this time with a majority government. Among the victors’ first priorities is a budget that was rejected by both the Progressive Conservative and New Democratic parties. Therein lies some possible good news for mining and exploration. The Liberals promised $1 billion to help open up the resource-rich challenge known as the Ring of Fire.
The bad news? As the Liberals are now firmly entrenched, so are the controversial mineral exploration regulations enacted last spring.
The Ring of Fire pledge was factored into the Liberals’ proposed May budget that brought down the minority government. But the money resurfaced as a campaign promise. Previously the government had talked about a billion-dollar commitment on the condition that the federal government put up an equal amount. Now, with that string unattached, the money would go into the province’s northern development corporation, an entity that hasn’t even been created yet.
How far a billion could go, or even twice that if the feds pony up, remains a nagging question for a region 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay that lacks a year-round transportation corridor, let alone other amenities.
Moreover there’s no indication when the money might be put to use. At least three companies have been pushing rival transportation proposals, one company even jumping into the election fray. The long, agonizing process of finding agreement on the region’s future among ministries at two levels of government, over 20 mining and exploration companies and several native communities has made no discernable progress so far.
But all three of the province’s major parties made all the right noises. Wynne described the region as “a national project at least as important as the oilsands in Alberta.”
NDP leader Andrea Horwath offered the possibility of even more money. “If it takes more than $1 billion, we are committed to that,” the CBC quoted her. The NDP platform also vowed to “create value-added jobs by ensuring resources are processed in Ontario.”
The third-place NDP, which propped up the minority Liberal government from November 2011 to last month, also proposed a committee “composed of all northern MPPs to review any legislation that affects the North.” The party offered tax credits to mining and forestry companies “that create jobs and make investments.”
The Progressive Conservatives, back in their now customary place as Ontario’s Official Opposition, refrained from explicit spending promises for the region. Instead, the party’s “Million Jobs Plan” called for repeal of the Liberals’ Far North Act “to encourage job creation in the North and development of the Ring of Fire.”
Saying the act “basically bans development in the far North,” PC leader Tim Hudak told media the legislation “has this downtown Toronto viewpoint of northern Ontario. Basically the viewpoint is that the North is some giant park and they want to freeze it in time…. I want to see it as an area of job creation or investment.”
The Conservatives maintain the act “locks up 225,000 square kilometres of northern Ontario from any future economic development” while “all of Ontario’s mines past and present occupy only 0.03% of the province’s total land area” and “less than 0.5% of Ontario’s boreal forest is harvested annually.”
Unsuccessful Thunder Bay PC candidate Derek Parks might have strayed slightly beyond the pale with a remark attributed to him by the CBC: “First nations have done a very good job of saying we have a right to be consulted, [that] doesn’t mean consent. There has to be middle ground and there has to be some negotiations.”
Apart from the Ring of Fire, Liberal legislation that took hold in April 2013 drew the ire of many Ontario explorers. In addition to the requirement to consult natives, the regulations imposed a minimum 30-day public comment period, even on early-stage exploration. When asked last July whether a Conservative government would revise the regulations, PC Northern Development and Mines critic Norm Miller told ResourceClips.com, “I think it’s very safe to say that if we form a government we absolutely would.”
Regardless, voters flocked to the Liberals, boosting their seats from 48 to a press time total of 59 while the PCs lost 10 ridings to end up with 27 seats. NDP numbers held firm at 21.
As is often the case in Canadian elections, the popular vote wasn’t so lop-sided. Press time numbers showed 38.6% Liberals, 31.3% PCs, 23.8% NDP and 4.8% Greens.
For all their criticism about a “downtown Toronto viewpoint of northern Ontario,” the PCs were shut out of the North. The hardly populated Ring of Fire sits in the Timmins-James Bay constituency. Along with Kenora-Rainy River to the west, the two giant ridings cover well over half of Ontario’s land mass. They both voted NDP overwhelmingly.
So did the three ridings immediately south of Timmins-James Bay.
Farther south yet, the NDP snatched the mining city of Sudbury from the Liberals.
South of Kenora-Rainy River, the Liberals easily won two Thunder Bay ridings, one of which returned Michael Gravelle, the last government’s minister of Northern Development and Mines.
Opposition critic Miller was re-elected in the southern riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka. All three major party leaders were re-elected but Hudak announced his resignation as PC leader.
The acrimonious campaign featured frequent PC and NDP accusations of Liberal corruption stemming from a gas plant scandal reckoned to cost taxpayers anywhere from $600 million to over $1 billion. The PCs managed to win the endorsements of the Toronto Sun, Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen and National Post. But they faced widespread animosity, including attack ads by a union representing the Ontario Provincial Police.
Wynne led the previous minority government since February 2013, following the resignation of her predecessor, former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty.