Need for First Nation social services in Ring of Fire may strain Ottawa: memo
A snowmobile rides down the main street of the Fort Hope First Nation in northern Ontario in December 2012. (Ryan Remiorz / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Steve Rennie, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, January 3, 2014 9:25PM EST
OTTAWA -- The federal government may struggle to keep up with a growing need for mental-health and other social services in First Nations communities located within a massive mineral find in northern Ontario, according to a newly released document.
Senior officials at Health Canada were cautioned last May that their existing social programs to help aboriginal communities in the Ring of Fire may not be sufficient to meet increased demand.
"Though supports are available, it is not clear whether current programming will be sufficient to meet emerging needs," says a memo to the deputy and associate deputy ministers.
The Neskantaga First Nation declared a state of emergency last April over a spate of suicides -- and the officials were warned Ottawa could face heightened pressure to provide similar support services to other communities as the area undergoes further development.
"Other communities located adjacent to the Ring of Fire development may have similar complex needs, and the increased activity in this region may place additional pressure upon the federal government for further action," the document says.
The Canadian Press obtained the memo under the Access to Information Act.
Several federal departments are working with local First Nations and the Ontario government on community health, social services and skills training. Health Canada has funded projects in nine First Nations communities to try to curb prescription drug abuse. There's also work underway to address mental-health issues and prevent suicides.
Addressing these social problems is necessary if First Nations are going to be involved in the Ring of Fire project, the document says.
"Physical and mental health are determinants for job and economic readiness," it says.
"Recognizing the impact that socio-economic challenges have on economic development, the government of Canada has prioritized the building of social infrastructure in these communities as a critical precursor to supporting their participation in the opportunities afforded by the Ring of Fire developments."
The Ring of Fire, located more than 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont., is a treasure trove of minerals and contains the largest deposit of chromite -- a key ingredient in stainless steel -- ever discovered in North America.
Both the federal and provincial governments have high hopes for billions of dollars of investment in the Ring of Fire -- development they hope will bring prosperity to struggling First Nations and royalties to their own coffers.
Federal and provincial ministers have compared the region to the Alberta oilsands in terms of its potential to produce wealth and development.
Health Canada didn't immediately make it clear how the situation developed where existing social programs might not meet growing needs.