OTTAWA - Treasury Board President Tony Clement will publicly take on federal responsibility for the massive Ring of Fire mineral discovery today in northern Ontario today.
He'll be walking on eggshells as he makes his first speech on the chromite and nickel interest in Thunder Bay this afternoon.
That's because the Ring of Fire file is not only complex, it is also controversial among environmentalists, First Nations and many of the communities who would be affected by the large-scale building of infrastructure and decades of mining.
It's also a huge test case of the federal government's "responsible resource development" approach that 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.
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 today is 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 is named after the Johnny Cash hit single of 1963 and is located about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay in the James Bay lowlands.
The 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.
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," he said.