A Modern Klondike
Northern Ontario’s fiery ring
Consider the major collisions of contemporary life in North America: the tensions between financial investments and social ideals; the threat of climate change in conflict with the thirst for energy sources; the rights of Indigenous people versus the prerogatives of elected governments; the rivalries with trading partners in competition with the hunger for goods from abroad; and the impulses of the regulatory state in full combat with the appeal of free markets. Then consider that all of these clashes — the stuff of debate in Ottawa and provincial capitals, the topics of animated conversation in universities and coffee shops across the country — are playing out, every one of them and all at once, in a remote 5,000-square-kilometre swath of northern Canada. It’s a place that’s home to the second-largest temperate wetland in the world, that’s packed with nickel and copper, and that’s known as the Ring of Fire.
The name may ring a bell if you are a habitué of western bars and thus familiar with the ballads of Johnny Cash, who released a song with that title in 1963. (Fifty years later, Rolling Stone named it the twenty-seventh-greatest country tune of all time.) The region, sitting 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ontario, and including “the remote swamps of the Hudson Bay and James Bay Lowlands,” was given its evocative name by Richard Nemis, the founder of Noront Resources, not long after diamonds were discovered there in the 1980s. Nemis was an executive who liked Johnny Cash as much as he lusted for cold cash. And though the area actually has nothing to do with the song, one of the Man in Black’s lines —“bound by wild desire”— does offer an eerily appropriate description of an ongoing rush for resources.
All this is by way of saying that Virginia Heffernan’s Ring of Fire: High-Stakes Mining in a Lowlands Wilderness is as relevant and fresh as today’s headlines. “We’re at a watershed moment in Canadian and global history,” she observes, and there’s every reason to believe she is right. Embedded in this volume, as in that region, are the principal issues of our time, skillfully and invitingly rendered by a field geologist turned business and environmental writer.
As our tour guide through a beguiling yet forbidding part of the country, Heffernan offers field notes to the geology and mineralogy that are central elements in a story that is an unusual admixture of natural and political science. “The mineral-rich area,” she writes of the lowlands, “encapsulates all the challenges of resource development in Canada: the potential for environmental damage, a lack of infrastructure that leaves resources stranded, and a regulatory and Indigenous consultation process that can be opaque.”
Heffernan fills her book with vivid descriptions of geology and nature in the grand tradition of the anthropologist and philosopher Loren Eiseley. “Some lands are flat and grass-covered, and smile so evenly up at the sun that they seem forever youthful, untouched by man or time,” he wrote at the beginning of The Immense Journey, his 1957 classic. “Some are torn, ravaged and convulsed like the features of profane old age. Rocks are wrenched up and exposed to view; black pits receive the sun but give back no light.” The first chapter of Ring of Fire features similarly elegant language:
It’s hard to imagine another mining region with so many flavours. It’s like combining the rich diamond pipes of Botswana with the high-grade chromite layers of the Bushveld complex in South Africa and the nickel-copper deposits of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, then mixing in the copper-zinc lenses of Manitoba’s Flin Flon greenstone belt and the gold veins of the Abitibi: a Harrod’s fruitcake of richness on a supersized scale.
This, like Eiseley’s meditations, is nature writing with supersize skill.
A latter-day gold rush — for you might consider the resources buried across the Ring of Fire to be the new gold, a kind of mid-continent Klondike — began in earnest in 2007, when an exploratory drill hole found “visible copper sulphide mineralization in a pyrrhotite-chalcopyrite-peridotite geological setting.” Those eleven words, which even an armchair geologist might find intimidating, can be distilled down to one of Joe Biden’s favourite phrases: a big f-in’ deal. How has that BFD played out? Institutional investors, Indigenous communities, miners, and money men all clamoured for advantage, clashed for power, and put down metaphorical stakes in an area that promises the most pay dirt in decades. Glasses clinked, stock prices soared, passions flowed, grievances grew. This being a boom-and-bust corner of the economy, though, the toasts inevitably faded and the market prices collapsed. Yet the passions and the grievances remained. Then — what would a tale like this be without a proxy fight and a series of inscrutable corporate restructurings? — all hell broke loose. Of course, China was involved. So were the usual greedy American executives with big plans for someone else’s land.
There’s an old French saying, dating to the days of Jacques Cartier: “faux comme un diamant du Canada,” which means “as fake as a diamond from Canada.” As Heffernan explains, that tired trope was turned on its head when the De Beers consortium found the precious gems here centuries later. She also explains how almost everything else involved in this timely book is as hard as those diamonds contained within the Ring of Fire’s kimberlite pipes. A glimpse at the hard work outside of the boardroom helps to demonstrate the point:
Fieldworkers on the ground in the James Bay Lowlands contend with particularly challenging working conditions. In winter, they must endure temperatures that dip below minus-40 degrees Celsius, frostbite a constant danger. Summer is even crueller. They face the worst the insect world can inflict. Only the permafrost beneath their feet prevents them from being consumed by the icy swamp. As a result, they are advised to keep three pairs of boots in camp — one on their feet, one drying out in camp, and another spare — to prevent their feet rotting from the outside in.
But there is another hard spot, almost insurmountable — at least without years of wrangling over the means to resolve it. While the Ring of Fire is loaded with minerals, it is pretty much inaccessible. To extract the ore, worth a fortune, would cost a fortune in itself — but it would at least be viable if a permanent year-round road were constructed. Plans for such a road are now under way: the Ontario premier Doug Ford and the provincial minister of northern development Greg Rickford, along with the Marten Falls First Nation chief Bruce Achneepineskum and the Webequie First Nation chief Cornelius Wabasse, announced the first big steps in the process in March 2020. The impact of a $1.6-billion road will be immeasurable, not least because it will for the first time provide a link for isolated northern communities to the broader Ontario road network.
All manner of legislation and regulation requires consultation with Indigenous communities, but that feature of North American life has far too often been honoured, to great dishonour, only in the breach. Thankfully, the role of First Nations in all aspects of Canadian life is under review — and that’s especially important in a region like the Ring of Fire.
One of Richard Nemis’s successors at Noront Resources, Paul Semple, was determined to set a new standard for commercial relations with affected communities. “We believe there is an opportunity right now for industry and First Nations to develop a world-class model of how we can work together,” he said in 2012. To that end, Noront became a partner in Nishnawbe Education and Training, to encourage local participation in the sector. By 2020, a majority of the company’s Esker camp employees identified as Indigenous, and two First Nations were equity partners. Nonetheless, in 2021, a coalition of groups, including MiningWatch Canada, Greenpeace Canada, and the Council of Canadians, asked the Ontario Securities Commission to investigate Noront (now Ring of Fire Metals) for not disclosing “significant” opposition to mining on traditional lands.
Indeed, there remain strains and resentments over development in the region. In December 2022, for example, the Globe and Mail columnist Tanya Talaga charged that Ontario’s omnibus Bill 197 — the province’s COVID-19 economic recovery act — was passed in 2020 “with basically zero consultation” with First Nations people, even as it “eviscerated the need for any environmental assessments to take place on ecologically sensitive areas” and “effectively allowed for the bulldozing of northern Ontario’s carbon storehouses in order to quickly develop the mineral-rich Ring of Fire region.”
Beyond respecting treaty rights, Heffernan argues, there is considerable practical benefit to collaboration among the industry, the government, and Indigenous groups. “Without widespread support from communities,” she writes, “companies will face blockades at the very least and, at worst, legal challenges that could drag on for years.” In recognition of a “growing worldwide demand for minerals for a low-carbon future,” both federal and provincial budgets allocated millions in 2022 to support community involvement in mining. “Is it such a stretch to imagine a future in which Indigenous businesses in Canada’s north supply these critical minerals to a greening world,” Heffernan asks poignantly, “while living up to their seven-generation promise to protect land and wildlife?”
Throughout, Heffernan presents a measured look at the Ring of Fire, setting out both the potential and the contradictions in the region and in the various debates that engulf it. Take, for instance, the proximity between resource development and local reserves. “That a multinational was digging hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of diamonds from the earth while the community of Attawapiskat, 90 kilometres downriver, suffered from deplorable housing conditions and a youth suicide epidemic had been beyond disturbing,” she writes. “It left a sour taste for many.”
The environmental challenges are as daunting as the social ones, because the ecosystem above the minerals is so fragile and unique:
Fish and other water creatures thrive in the clean, clear rivers that flow from the majestic rock faces of the Canadian Shield to the west. During fall migration, the James Bay coastline supports up to 20 percent of the populations of several shorebird species, including an endangered long-distance flyer called the red knot. This is the only area between the maritime Arctic and the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico that offers a tidal saltwater habitat for them.
But the most refreshing thing about this book — so dutiful, so serious — is the flight of fancy that Heffernan embarks on at the end. She has hopes for the far horizon: The great winds of the region are harnessed and harvested for power. The energy they produce is stored by batteries created with locally sourced nickel. A new hydrogen plant is in operation. Drones circle above, monitoring environmental elements. Indigenous businesses in Webequie and Marten Falls flourish by providing catering, trucking, and other services. The mining is performed by robots that limit disruption to the rock structures and don’t expose humans to the dangers beneath the ground. All the water used is recycled, while avoiding leaks of contaminants. New technology regulates the rate and extent of extraction and matches them to market needs. Canada becomes a leader in electric vehicles. Some peatlands have been restored, helping to store carbon and thus alleviate climate change.
Heffernan envisions a model of mining that “leverages traditional Indigenous knowledge and practice to ensure the land reverts to its natural state with no long-term environmental consequences once metals have been removed and shipped.” She imagines community ownership of projects, so that resources are “managed in a way that places people, flora, and fauna above profit on the priority list.” And she dreams of “economic prosperity” being successfully balanced “with social and environmental posterity.”
In this way, Ring of Fire concludes as both manifesto and road map, with a touch of affecting memoir. Books have achieved high impact for far less. And if Heffernan’s dream comes true — if even some of it is realized — then everyone involved might come to decide that the area should be named no longer for a Johnny Cash song but rather for a Brad Paisley ballad, “Welcome to the Future,” which he wrote just as the region’s potential was being assessed. “So many things I never thought I’d see,” the lyrics go. “Happening right in front of me.”