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Updated: Mon, 25 Nov 2013 18:34:37 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Harper's Ring of Fire comments took Ontario by 'surprise'



Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is expected to be in Ottawa next week but it's not yet clear whether she will get the meeting she requested with the prime minister following a letter she wrote to him about the Ring of Fire on Nov. 8. Mark Blinch/Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is expected to be in Ottawa next week but it's not yet clear whether she will get the meeting she requested with the prime minister following a letter she wrote to him about the Ring of Fire on Nov. 8. Mark Blinch/Canadian Press

The Ontario government says it was taken by surprise when Prime Minister Stephen Harper dismissed development in the Ring of Fire region as the province's problem, given that repeated calls for the federal government to play a role in the project have gone unanswered in recent weeks.

In a telephone interview with CBC News on Monday, Ontario's Minister of Northern Development and Mines Michael Gravelle said Harper's comments came "as a surprise." 

"To simply be somewhat dismissive and say it's a matter of provincial issue or provincial jurisdiction, certainly took me a little bit aback," Gravelle said.

The prime minister was asked, during a news conference in Winnipeg on Friday, what role the federal government had in getting the development in the Ring of Fire back on track after a major U.S. mining company suspended its operations in the area a day earlier.

Harper said "this is a project that is primarily under provincial jurisdiction because ultimately resources belong to the provinces and resource development is a provincial responsibility."

"Obviously we have been talking to Ontario over the last few years in terms of regulatory approval processes, in terms of infrastructure investments and in terms of making sure that First Nations continue to benefit," Harper told reporters gathered in Winnipeg on Friday.

"But ultimately as I say, the jurisdiction here is primarily provincial, and ultimately it is private companies themselves that have to make commercial decisions on the viability of projects," Harper said.

Ontario 'disappointed'

The Ontario minister told CBC News it was those comments that "motivated" him to write a letter to Greg Rickford, the minister responsible for the federal economic development initiative for northern Ontario, calling on him to meet one-on-one to discuss the matter.

"If these were the initial comments, if that was a signal they were sending, it's now even more important that we find a way to get together," Gravelle told CBC News.

In his letter to Rickford, Gravelle said "I am disappointed to see that your government is now dismissing the development in the Ring of Fire as a provincial issue."

"Development of this scale is not about jurisdictional boundaries or placing blame — the Ring of Fire development is about much more."

"That is why we continue to urge your government to be a committed partner for investment and collaboration in the development corporation," Gravelle said.

The Ontario minister also noted in his correspondence with Rickford that federal investment in the project would be "a meaningful way" for the federal government to meet its obligation to First Nations.

Ontario's call for the federal government to step forward as a partner in the development of the Ring of Fire has gone "unanswered," Gravelle said, despite numerous requests from Ontario for federal engagement in the project.

Wynne – Harper meeting

Wynne is expected to be in Ottawa next week but it's not yet clear whether she will get the meeting she requested with the prime minister to discuss this and other issues.

A spokesperson in the Prime Minister's Office told CBC News on Monday afternoon that a reply will come "in due course."

Wynne wrote to Harper on Nov. 8, the day Ontario announced the creation of a new development corporation that would bring together First Nations, mining companies, private and public partners, and both levels of government, to facilitate development of infrastructure into the Ring of Fire.

"We expect your government to come to the table with matching funds," Wynne wrote to Harper in no uncertain terms.

The Ontario government has estimated the total capital investment for infrastructure in the range of $800 million to $1 billion, with the estimated costs of connecting the Ring of Fire communities to all-season access roads at $1.25 billion.

Gravelle told CBC News there has indeed been "no formal reply" from Harper to date, nor has there been a formal reply from Rickford to a letter the Ontario minister sent him around the same time. 

But on Monday afternoon, Gravelle said the federal minister indicated, after receiving his letter, that he will meet with him. "Rickford's office and mine are working on getting a time together," Gravelle said.

In an interview with CBC News in Thunder Bay on Monday afternoon, Rickford confirmed as much, saying, "Minister Gravelle and I have spoken quite recently and he knows that we have every intention of sitting down and talking about this."

Following the decision by Cliffs Natural Resources to suspend its operations in the Ring of Fire region, Rickford told CBC News he was concerned about what he called a "legacy project." 

Ontario's New Democrats contacted CBC News late Monday afternoon with their own concerns saying Wynne's Liberals are to blame for the U.S. mining company's decision to suspend operations in the region.

"Premier Wynne is trying to pick a fight with Prime Minister Harper so she can divert attention from the Liberal government’s mishandling of the Ring of Fire," Michael Mantha, the provincial NDP critic for northern development and mines, said in an email to CBC News. 

"The Liberal government’s mismanagement is to blame for Cliffs Natural Resources indefinitely suspending operations in the Ring of Fire," he added.

The Ring of Fire is a mineral-rich region 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay in northern Ontario, worth up to $60 billion, but the remoteness of the area poses obvious challenges to its development.

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