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First Nations leaders demand meeting with premier over mining, removed from chamber

Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias, centre in green, speaks alongside First Nations community members during an improvised press conference inside the Ontario Legislature, at Queen's Park, in Toronto, Wednesday, March 29, 2023. Moonias was one of two First Nation leaders who were kicked out of Ontario's legislature for shouting at Premier Doug Ford to meet with them over mining concerns on their lands in the "Ring of Fire" region. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Allison Jones

TORONTO — Two First Nation leaders were removed from Ontario's legislative chamber Wednesday after shouting at Premier Doug Ford over concerns about plans to expand mining operations on and around their lands in the so-called Ring of Fire region.

Those plans include the province's intention to build a road to the Ring of Fire and mine the large swath of land in northern Ontario that's said to rich in critical minerals, which the government wants to use in its push to build electric vehicles.

"There will be no Ring of Fire!" incoming Neskantaga First Nation Chief Chris Moonias bellowed from one of the galleries in the legislative chamber. 

Ford, who has previously said he'll get a road built to the mineral-rich region even if he has to hop on a bulldozer himself, did not appear to look up at the galleries as Moonias and outgoing Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias were ushered out.

"They're going to destroy our lands ... they're going to destroy our way of life," Wayne Moonias said outside the chamber. 

"We're dealing with the lifeline and the lifeblood of our people, when it comes to our traditional homelands and when it comes to our people, when it comes to their way of life and it's unacceptable, with this type of disrespect and ignorance by this government." 

NDP Indigenous affairs critic Sol Mamakwa asked Ford in question period if the premier would meet with the First Nations leaders who showed up at the legislature.

Ford didn't answer and deferred to Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford. 

"We're focused on building relationships under the leadership of this premier and we meet very regularly with Indigenous leaders from across this province," Rickford said.

Chris Moonias said he and the dozens of members of five First Nations who visited the legislature Wednesday wanted to meet with Ford and only Ford. 

The premier's office said Ford is in constant contact with various chiefs from across the province and that the Indigenous leaders at the legislature Wednesday did not formally request to meet with him.

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser called that response "nonsense."

"We're all in the building – how much more formal do you want it to get?" he said. 

The province recently approved the terms of reference from two First Nations for an environmental assessment for an all-season, multi-use road to the Ring of Fire. Webequie First Nation and Marten Falls First Nation designed and submitted the now-approved plan that will link their First Nations and mining sites to Ontario's road network.

But other First Nations in the area have voiced opposition, with outgoing Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias saying there will be no development on his community's land without consent.

The previous Liberal government signed a regional framework agreement in 2014 with nine First Nations on a process for development in the region, though by 2017, then-premier Kathleen Wynne warned that she would move to bilateral talks if there was no progress on an overall deal. Her government signed agreements with three of the nine communities.

In 2019 the Progressive Conservative government ripped up the regional framework agreement in favour of pursuing individual talks, saying the move would speed up development.

The Ring of Fire region, about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, is said to hold some of the world's richest deposits of chromite, nickel, copper and platinum and the province has made long-standing promises to develop and mine the area. 

It is seen as key to Ford's push to develop an end-to-end electric vehicle manufacturing chain in the province, starting with mining the materials needed for batteries.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said building consensus with First Nations on Ring of Fire projects will take time, but it is worth doing. 

"That's how it's going to be successful, otherwise I don't think it's going to happen," she said. 

"I think, unfortunately, that Doug Ford has probably extended the time that it's going to take to come to some kind of arrangement or agreement, because he refuses again, to actually treat First Nations communities, First Nations people, with respect that they deserve, won't even meet with the chief ... What century is he living in, that he thinks that that's not a requirement of moving this forward?" 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2023.

Liam Casey and Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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