OTTAWA - Treasury Board President Tony Clement is taking on federal responsibility for the massive Ring of Fire mineral discovery in northern Ontario, vowing to find a way to make the potential mining projects work for everyone.
"We need to do this right. But we need to do this," Clement said Tuesday in a speech to the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce.
"There is a lot at stake and we cannot afford to allow this development to stall and become mired in paralysis and uncertainty."
Despite his enthusiasm, Clement was walking on eggshells as he made his first formal speech on the chromite and nickel interest 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.
That's because the Ring of Fire file is not only complicated, it is also controversial among environmentalists, First Nations and many of the communities who stand to be impacted by the large-scale building of infrastructure and subsequent decades of mining.
"It is complex, there is no doubt about it," Clement said.
"But that is not a reason to shrug your shoulders and walk away. What it means is that we have to make the extra effort."
It's also a huge test case of the federal government's "Responsible Resource Development" approach, which has influenced major changes in legislation but has also had a rough ride of late.
Attempts to build pipelines to the West and to the south have met with a public outcry, and Ottawa's record on climate change record has been challenged, not just by the federal environment auditor but also by the new Obama administration.
At the same time, tension between governments and First Nations about how to share the bounty from natural resources has surged over the past few months.
So Clement's first priority is to avoid upsetting anyone and build a consensus around the best way to develop the region's newly discovered riches.
"The whole purpose of the engagement ... is first and foremost to listen to other people," Clement said in a phone interview the day before his speech.
While Tuesday was Clement's first public foray as minister in charge of Ring of Fire, he is no stranger to the development. The Parry Sound MP is also the minister for FedNor, the federal regional development agency for northern Ontario, and has been hearing about the area's mining potential for years.
The Ring of Fire, named after the Johnny Cash hit single of 1963, is located among the majestic rivers and vast muskeg of the James Bay lowlands. Its potential is enormous, with discussion of building one of the largest chromite mines in the world, as well as talk of nickel and other metals.
"This will be a project of national significance for decades" that will bring jobs, revenues, social development and the possibility of opening new markets for Canadian exports, Clement said.
"I honestly believe this is in a class by itself."
But the challenges are also enormous.
The area is remote and pristine. Several First Nations live near or in the Ring, and claim the area as traditional lands. They are among the most impoverished communities in Canada, reachable only by plane and struggling to deal with high levels of addiction, poor health, low levels of schooling and widespread unemployment.
The Ontario government asked Ottawa last year to name a minister who would oversee the federal role in the Ring of Fire development, Clement explained.
He will bring together work being done at a range of departments: FedNor, Aboriginal Affairs, Natural Resources, Environment Canada, Health Canada, Infrastructure Canada and the Department of Finance.
"There needs to be somebody who can take a whole-of-government approach to this," the minister said.
He said he hopes to participate in a development plan that is collaborative, includes all major players, and brings together different levels of government.
"Much of Canada's wealth was founded on mining," Clement said. "And much of its future prosperity will be too. We should not fritter it away."
Companies, First Nations and the provincial government have been waiting for Ottawa to signal how it will support aboriginal training and capacity building, whether it will help subsidize a road or railway to connect the mine to other infrastructure, and whether it will allow for a full-fledged environmental review that would include public hearings and a look at the long-term effects of mining on the entire region.
Federal officials have already spent well over a year examining these issues, and have ramped up their analysis in the past six months.
But Clement said he is not yet ready to start calling the shots.
"It's way too premature."