Feds seek Osgoode Environmental Justice & Sustainability Clinic’s help in Ring of Fire

In what is being described as “a stunning success,” Osgoode Hall Law School’s Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic has received word from the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change that its request for a regional impact assessment for proposed mining and road infrastructure in Ontario’s Ring of Fire has been accepted.

Dayna Nadine Scott
Dayna Scott

Minister Jonathan Wilkinson granted the clinic’s request, with reasons, in a Feb. 10 letter addressed to clinic co-director, Professor Dayna Scott. He stated that the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada has been instructed to meet with the clinic in order to shape the terms of reference for the regional assessment.

The Ring of Fire is a large deposit of minerals, including nickel, copper, zinc, gold and most notably chromite, that has been discovered in the Far North of Ontario. It is in a remote part of the province, inhabited almost exclusively by Indigenous peoples.

The regional impact assessment will look at the mining and road proposals for the area and assess their cumulative impacts on Indigenous way of life, harvesting practices and jurisdiction, as well as climate change mitigation and fragmentation of the boreal forest.

“Building roads to the mine site could potentially threaten the integrity of one of the largest intact boreal forests remaining in the world, a globally significant wetland, and a massive carbon storehouse,” Scott said.  “It also could threaten the ways of life of Indigenous peoples who have been the stewards of those lands since time immemorial.”

Scott, who is the York Research Chair in Environmental Law & Justice in the Green Economy, described the government decision to conduct the Ring of Fire regional impact assessment as “a major accomplishment” for the Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic.

The clinic works to advance environmental justice and sustainability in Canada by carrying out a variety of legal work on a pro bono basis for a number of clients (individuals, communities, NGOs, municipalities, First Nations, social enterprises, etc.), often in cooperation with external public interest-oriented lawyers and legal service organizations. Students in the clinical program perform legal work supervised by experts in the field.

“One of the clinic’s projects for the year was to assist one of the remote First Nations in the region with work on the ongoing project-level environmental assessment,” Scott said. “In the course of that work, it became obvious that the interests at stake would be better protected through a regional assessment. Since the process for requesting a regional assessment is a novel part of the new federal legislation (the Impact Assessment Act), we weren’t sure how the request would be handled by the Minister.”

Scott said two students in clinic co-director Professor Estair Van Wagner’s Natural Resource class – Christie McLeod and Isaac Twinn – and three Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic students – Madhavi Gupta, Edith Barabash and Patrick McCaugherty – worked on research related to the file. McLeod, a clinic alumna from 2017-2018 and a JD/MES student, and Twinn also participated in the actual drafting of the request.

“What is most exciting for me in this stunning success for the clinic is the prospects for the federal Impact Assessment Agency to meaningfully partner with the Indigenous Governing Authorities in the region, so that they can resume the work of deliberating on the relative merits of competing visions for the future of their homelands,” Scott said.  “When that process broke down, and the process was reduced to those First Nations being merely ‘consulted on’ the proponents’ proposals, the prospects of a lasting resolution of the conflict had begun to fade.”