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Canada mining push puts major carbon sink and Indigenous lands in the crosshairs

The Hudson Bay Lowland landscape is as much water as land. The deep peat soils of the region store billions of tonnes of carbon. Image courtesy of WCS Canada.

The Hudson Bay lowland landscape is as much water as land. The deep peat soils of the region store billions of tonnes of carbon. Image courtesy of WCS Canada.

  • A massive mining project called the Ring of Fire is being proposed in Canada’s Hudson Bay lowlands, a region that houses one of the biggest peatland complexes in the world and is home to several Indigenous communities.
  • According to the federal and provincial governments, this region hosts one of the “most promising mineral development opportunities,” which is expected to generate jobs and revenues in the remote region.
  • Environmentalists say the proposed development threatens to degrade peatlands, which act as a massive carbon store, and could lead to an increase in emissions; First Nations communities have also voiced concerns about mining impacts on traditional lands and livelihoods.
  • Many of the affected First Nations have issued moratoriums against the project or have taken the provincial government to court, citing treaty violations and lack of consultations by the governments prior to greenlighting the project and issuing mining claims.

Since the last ice age, wide rivers have meandered toward the southern shores of Hudson Bay in Canada, to join its salty waters. On their way, they’ve created swaths of wetlands, filled with carbon-packed peat bog. The Cree Indigenous people who have lived here for millennia call these peatlands Yehewin Aski, or “the Breathing Lands,” for they believe these wetlands act as the lungs of Mother Earth.

“It’s such a watery landscape,” says Lorna Harris, a peatland ecosystem scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. “Every peatland is connected to every other peatland that is next to it, which is then connected to the streams, which go to the rivers downstream, all the way down to Hudson Bay and James Bay.”

Peatlands cover only 3% of the planet’s land surface but store a considerable amount of terrestrial carbon thousands of years old. Image by David Stanley via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Sphagnum moss, a tiny, colorful plant, covers the peatlands’ surface. Underneath the moss lies a treasure trove: thousands of years of well-preserved remains of dead moss and other vegetation that have sequestered eye-popping amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These peatlands are the biggest land-based carbon vault in North America, and the second-largest in the world.

But now mining companies want to open a part of that vault. In the early 2000s, a mining company called Noront Resources uncovered significant deposits of chromite, copper, nickel, platinum and palladium, thought to be worth billions of dollars. They span an area of 5,000 square kilometers (1,900 square miles), and the minerals they contain are believed to be vital for Canada to move toward cleaner sources of energy and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The project was dubbed “Ring of Fire,” after the song by U.S. singer-songwriter Johnny Cash.

The federal and provincial governments in Canada have touted this project as bringing industrial development to remote parts of northern Ontario, and say “stringent environmental standards” will be met during the exploitation process.

However, environmentalists and surrounding First Nations communities have raised concerns. Although First Nations have not yet reached a consensus on development, most communities have objected due to lack of Indigenous participation in environmental assessments and a potential violation of a treaty right that protects their livelihoods in the region.

“The communities living in the region have depended on these wetlands for thousands of years for their livelihoods,” says Vern Cheechoo, director of lands and resources at the Mushkegowuk Council, an assembly of chiefs representing Cree First Nations in northern Ontario.

The proposed Ring of Fire mining projects in the James Bay lowlands in Ontario span some 5000 square kilometers (1,900 square miles).

Indigenous peoples have had a unique relationship with the Hudson Bay lowlands for millennia. These communities depend on the peatlands to harvest berries and hunt moose and caribou. However, European settlers and subsequent governments in Canada thought of the boggy, hard-to-navigate peatlands as wastelands and largely left them alone.

The Ring of Fire projects may change that forever.

Concerns about emissions and environmental impacts 

The Hudson Bay lowland peatlands store around 30 billion to 35 billion tons of carbon — more than all of Canada’s managed forests. The 5,000-km2 Ring of Fire region itself contains roughly 1.6 billion tons of carbon.

“So, even if just half of this [carbon from the Ring of Fire region] was to be released as CO2, that’s one year of Canada’s annual emissions,” Harris tells Mongabay.

If the federal and Ontario governments decide to proceed with the proposed mining plans, the resulting draining, mining and road construction activities would degrade the peatlands. This destruction would risk releasing the stored carbon in the wetlands as both carbon dioxide and methane.

However, there’s little data on how mining, and subsequent infrastructure building, would impact the Hudson Bay lowland peatlands’ current carbon storage.

“This development could tip up climate change to the point where all efforts globally to get us out of this pending disaster are rendered moot,” says Kate Kempton, an attorney at the law firm Olthuis Kleer Townshend and an expert on Indigenous and treaty rights. “This is reckless and dangerous.”

The Hudson Bay lowland landscape is as much water as land. Image courtesy of Michael Oldham.

As part of its plan to tackle climate change, Canada has pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 by shifting toward clean energy and using natural climate solutions. A study in the journal Science found that avoiding disturbances in peatlands is one of the country’s biggest opportunities to mitigate emissions.

“There’s no way we can release this carbon, damage these peatlands and reach net zero,” Harris says. “Having that stay in the ground is critical for global climate.”

 First Nations communities in the region are already particularly concerned about the impacts of climate change on their local environments and food sources. Studies predict that climate change will drive a decline in the caribou population due to habitat loss. Mixed-wood and coniferous forests would give way to grasslands, which would also increase the chances of wolves hunting the caribou. Moose and caribou are an important food source in the region and use the wetlands for breeding.

Some First Nations in the region, like the Neskantaga and Marten Falls nations, have also long dealt with water issues, despite living in a land of plenty. Bacterial contamination and incorrectly built filtration systems have put the Neskantaga and Marten Falls under a “boil water” advisory for more than two decades now.

With the proposed Ring of Fire, some Indigenous communities say they fear the future looks even more uncertain.

It could hamper the Indigenous-led marine conservation efforts in James Bay (Weeneebeg), a traditional fishing and hunting ground for the Omushkego peoples extending from the southern end of Hudson Bay. In 2021, the Canadian government partnered with the Mushkegowuk Council to assess the feasibility of a national marine protected area on the west coast of James Bay.

Caribou, a food source for Indigenous peoples in Canada, is a threatened species. The peatlands are a favored habitat for these animals and help them escape from wolves, which find it hard to navigate in the swampy peatlands. Image by Bauer, Erwin and Peggy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

“We are concerned about how the upcoming mines would be affecting the wetlands, which are interconnected, and how communities downstream of the Ring of Fire would be affected,” Cheechoo says.

Despite these concerns being shared with the provincial government, the current Ontario government endorses the Ring of Fire project.

The provincial ministry of northern development, mines, natural resources and forestry, which is a stakeholder in the Ring of Fire, declined to comment, citing a writ period due to today’s provincial elections on June 2.

High on promises, low on participation

Earlier this year, Ontario announced a critical minerals strategy to increase exploration in the province and provide the minerals needed for the clean energy transition. According to the provincial government, this would create jobs for rural communities, boost economic and infrastructure development, and reduce Canada’s reliance on other countries for mineral imports.

In the 2022 federal budget, the Canadian government announced up to C$3.8 billion ($3 billion) for the critical minerals strategy. Up to C$103.4 million ($82.1 million) will go to “advancing economic reconciliation in the natural resource sector, including support for Indigenous participation” through engagement and community capacity building, according to an official with Natural Resources Canada, a federal ministry.

Currently, there is no chromite mining in Canada; the country imports all its chromite, the chief source for the chrome used in stainless steel and other applications, from South Africa. The strategy considers the Ring of Fire project “a transformative opportunity” for mining activities that will last more than a century and generate up to C$9.4 billion ($7.5 billion) in GDP in the first 10 years of its development.

The De Beers diamond mine (now closed) was the fist major industrial development in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Image courtesy of De Beers Canada.

The Ring of Fire region is remote, without access roads; building new roads will be crucial for the mine development.

“If I have to hop on a bulldozer myself, we’re going to start building roads to the Ring of Fire,” tweeted Ontario Premier Doug Ford, a strong proponent of the mining project, in 2018. Ford has now promised an investment of C$1 billion ($789 million) for road projects in the area.

But hopping on that bulldozer would violate treaty agreements drafted with First Nations more than a century ago. The James Bay lowlands are a part of Treaty 9, an agreement between the Ojibway, Cree and other Indigenous Nations in the region and the government. As part of the agreement, the government agreed not to interfere with the traditional livelihoods of these Indigenous peoples.

Moreover, Canada agreed to abide by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) last year. This legally binding resolution requires Canada to involve Indigenous participation in all matters that concern them. It also mandates obtaining their free, prior and informed consent on these matters.

In a bid to win approval from First Nations, and to ease access to the mines, the mining companies and government have promised to build all-season road access to some of the 34 First Nations, connecting them with the provincial highway network. Most of these communities currently have roads on frozen waterways accessible only during winter, or air-only access.

Aerial view of Hudson Bay lowlands. Image courtesy of Esther Dyson via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

At the moment, none of the First Nations have consented to the mining operations or road construction. Only two nations, the Marten Falls First Nation and Webequie First Nation, have agreed to work with Ontario to participate in the environmental assessment studies regarding road building. Other First Nations have objected to any development due to the lack of comprehensive, First Nations co-led assessments.

“First Nations in the Ring of Fire region have not yet achieved consensus [and] there are still varying perspectives on development,” says a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, the federal ministry responsible for policies relating to Indigenous peoples in the country.

Mining is the second-largest private sector employer of Indigenous peoples in Canada, according to the ministry.

“There [are] no rights of [Canadian] governments to [unilaterally] make these [decisions] on their own, and they need the consent of the affected Indigenous nations to proceed with this kind of development,” Kempton, the treaty rights law expert, tells Mongabay. “If the … governments keep pushing ahead without First Nations’ consent, they will be violating the First Nations treaty rights, international legal rights and charter rights to life.”

Despite the lack of prior consent to date, the federal and provincial governments have begun pushing the project forward with exploration activities. The federal minister of environment and climate change has published a draft terms of reference for regional impact assessment for the region that includes members from the federal and provincial ministries but has no indication that Indigenous communities or governance bodies would have any decision-making powers.

In response, five First Nations have written a letter raising concerns about what they call a “token role” instead of them co-developing and co-leading such assessments. As of January 2022, Ontario has issued more than 26,000 mining claims for 15 companies and individuals in the region, and mineral exploration is underway.

Beaver Pond in northern Ontario’s wetlands. Image courtesy of Mustang Joe via Flickr.

“We are not against road development or economic development in the region,” says Cheechoo from the Mushkegowuk Council, “but we would like to be involved in and consulted about these development projects for us to understand the impacts of such projects.”

The communities are requesting a comprehensive, in-depth regional impact assessment led by all affected First Nations in the area. In 2021, the Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Neskantaga First Nations declared a moratorium against the Ring of Fire projects. The Attawapiskat sought a court injunction against exploration by Juno, a mining company, citing lack of consultation.

“No one should do anything until we have answers,” Kempton says.

The way forward

In many parts of the world, mining has had devastating effects on the environment as a trade-off for achieving better social and economic development. However, in northern Ontario, some environmentalists say there may be other ways to strike a balance without sacrificing the peatlands.

“I’m definitely not anti-mining or anti-jobs,” says Harris from WCS Canada, “I just think it’s perhaps not the right place for mining and that there are other places for this.”

Sudbury, a town in northern Ontario and a mining hub, already has the necessary infrastructure to support intensive mining activity and is not located in the carbon-rich peatlands.

“Can we look into other more sustainable sources of these critical minerals, can we look at recycling, can we look at old mine tailings?” Harris says, referring to the fact that old mine tailings may house a treasure trove of unextracted minerals. “I think we need to explore all of the options for these things.”

Wetlands in Northern Ontario. Image courtesy of Marcel Lemieux via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

As Canada takes a reconciliatory path to recognizing the sovereignty and stewardship of its Indigenous peoples, it has to acknowledge the rights of its First Peoples, Kempton says.

“These Indigenous nations were born in this place in the world, and their entire way of life — spiritual, economic, social and cultural — is grounded in these lands,” she says.

One way to recognize that is to get their participation in massive projects like the Ring of Fire, as put forth by the UNDRIP, and listen to their concerns that stem from the deep cultural and spiritual relationships they have with their lands.

“We have a connection to the environment spiritually as we are the water, we are the animals, we are the environment,” Cheechoo says. “What we do to the environment is what we do to ourselves.”

 

Citations:

Drever, C. R., Cook-Patton, S. C., Akhter, F., Badiou, P. H., Chmura, G. L., Davidson, S. J., … Kurz, W. A. (2021). Natural climate solutions for Canada. Science Advances7(23). doi:10.1126/sciadv.abd6034

Barber, Q. E., Parisien, M., Whitman, E., Stralberg, D., Johnson, C. J., St-Laurent, M., … Flannigan, M. D. (2018). Potential impacts of climate change on the habitat of boreal woodland caribou. Ecosphere9(10), e02472. doi:10.1002/ecs2.2472

Sonter, L. J., Ali, S. H., & Watson, J. E. (2018). Mining and biodiversity: Key issues and research needs in conservation science. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences285(1892), 20181926. doi:10.1098/rspb.2018.1926

 

Banner image: The Hudson Bay lowland landscape is as much water as land. The deep peat soils of the region store billions of tonnes of carbon. Image courtesy of WCS Canada.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: To understand what is being done to restore Indonesia’s peatlands, we speak with the deputy head of the National Peatland Restoration Agency, Budi Wardhana, and with Dyah Puspitaloka, a researcher at CIFOR, the Center for International Forestry Research. Listen here:

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