LILLEY: Historic Ontario road agreement puts First Nations in driver’s seat

It’s been labelled an historic agreement, an actual memorandum of understanding, a commitment of funds and the launch of an indigenous-led environmental assessment to build a road into one of the most remote parts of Ontario.

Premier Doug Ford signed the agreement alongside Chief Bruce Achneepineskum and Chief Cornelius Wabasse in Toronto on Monday.

The agreement will see the Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations lead an environmental assessment of the proposed building of a year-round, paved road linking the two communities to points further south.

It’s a brave move these days when people in cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — far from the development — can hold protests to shut down major infrastructure while claiming they are standing in solidarity with First Nations.

To the chiefs involved though, this is about the future of their people.

“We are looking forward to, you know, to prosperity,” Chief Wabasse said when I asked him about the prospect of people in downtown Toronto protesting to stop this road and keep his community environmentally pure.

Wabasse said that his community wants to be a partner with the province and industries that are looking to mine on or near their traditional lands.

“So that we can make change for our communities up there because we are living in poverty,” Wabasse said.

The road, if built, would not only link these remote communities to the rest of Ontario, it would allow for the development of the Ring of Fire — one of the biggest mineral deposits in the world.

Developing those resources has the potential to make bands like Marten Falls and Webequie wealthy.

It’s why Chiefs Wabasse and Achneepineskum signed on, to give opportunity to their people.

But while the chiefs support it, others are trying to make sure the road doesn’t happen.

The federal government could still shut this all down. The feds have the ability to demand their own environmental assessment or invoke the “duty to consult” as ways to stop this project from going forward.

Given Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s record, especially in the last few weeks, we can’t rule that out.