On July 14, 2008, the Ontario government announced a plan known as the “Far North Initiative” to protect roughly half of northern Ontario’s vast tract of Boreal forest. The government has committed to protect more than 225,000 square kilometres of northern Boreal lands within a geographic area referred to loosely as the “Far North.” Although the precise tracts of land have not yet been determined, the government has stated that priority will be given to protect lands with “key ecological features.” The government has also stated that resource development on lands deemed to be protected will be restricted, and only tourism and traditional Aboriginal uses will be permitted.

In addition to this commitment, the government stated its desire to include First Nations and Métis communities in the planning and development processes, as well as to ensure that these communities share in revenues that stem from permitted development in the protected portions of the Far North. On the planning front, the government intends to engage First Nations and Métis communities, and both the resource sector and scientists, to help create a broad framework that should be in place by spring 2009. In addition to seeking input from the northern Aboriginal community on the framework, the government will help individual communities develop specific plans to guide development and endeavour to include Aboriginal cultural heritage in the mapping of the resource potential, ecological significance and carbon sinks in the Far North.

On the development and revenue front, the government intends to create a new system to share resource benefits with Aboriginal communities. Although additional details on resource benefit-sharing may come at a later date, the government has already suggested that benefits such as 1) sharing of Crown revenues from natural resources development with Aboriginal communities, 2) ensuring Aboriginal communities have natural resource allocations, 3) involving Aboriginal communities in the management of natural resources, and 4) private sector collaboration and cooperation with Aboriginal communities. Presumably, these are in addition to the government’s announcement earlier this year that it would examine the possibility of Aboriginal loan guarantees for energy projects owned by First Nations and Métis.

In addition to resource benefit-sharing with the government, the government announced that it would review the Mining Act to ensure resource development benefits Aboriginal communities. On August 11, 2008 the government released its discussion paper “Modernizing Ontario’s Mining Act — Finding a Balance,” which was posted for comment on the Environmental Registry. The paper outlines five principle policy issues, of which four contain direct reference to Aboriginal issues:

  1. Mineral tenure system and security of investment — This aspect contemplates adjustments to the mineral tenure system, including free entry, to assure investment security while taking into account other interests such as Aboriginal community concerns.
  2. Aboriginal rights and interests related to mining development — With over 100 First Nation and Métis communities affected by mining, each with different needs, the government will work to develop a flexible consultation framework to accommodate many perspectives.
  3. Regulatory processes for exploration activities on Crown land — The Mining Act does not regulate early-stage exploration activities. The government is considering regulatory measures for these types of activities after Aboriginal groups indicated that early-stage exploration activities may significantly impact their communities. In particular, regulatory measures may be enhanced to better address consultation with Aboriginal communities.
  4. Land use planning in Ontario’s Far North as it relates to mineral exploration and development — This aspect of the review ties in the Far North Initiative, as summarized in this article. In particular and with respect to the Mining Act, new mines would have to be included in community land use plans supported by local Aboriginal communities.

For further discussion of the proposed changes to the Mining Act, please see another article in this issue.

Both the Far North Initiative and changes to the Mining Act will change significantly how development is undertaken in the Ontario’s north. While the announcement on August 11 makes it clear that revenues drawn from mining may be included in resource benefits sharing, other affected industries may include forestry and energy.

In particular, the Far North Initiative appears to be an attempt by the Ontario government to deal with environmental concerns associated with protecting the Boreal forest, and to allow for initiatives to deal with First Nations and Métis issues on a broad level. Precisely how this will be done, given the immense interest in obtaining access to resources and energy in Ontario’s northern region (and likely, the need to do so), is unknown. Obviously, this is an important initiative for Ontario, and one that could have major impacts on resource, infrastructure and energy businesses investing or operating in northern Ontario.