OTTAWA - A group of nine Northern Ontario First Nations is going to Federal Court in an effort to force the federal and Ontario governments to hear them out on a massive new mining development in an area known as the Ring of Fire.

The group is seeking a beefed up environmental assessment of a proposed chromite mine 540 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, complete with public consultations in affected communities.

Chromite is a key mineral in the making of stainless steel. The size of the Ring of Fire deposit is considered globally significant.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency elected to conduct what is called a "comprehensive study" rather than a "joint review panel." The former has a one-year timeline and relies heavily on reports, studies and written submissions. The review panel process is open-ended and involves more community discussion and debate.

Peter Moonias, the chief of the Neskantaga First Nation, said Ottawa has a constitutional duty to consult First Nations on issues that affect them, but instead "they have delegated the process to the mining companies."

"We're not asking for much," said Sonny Gagnon, chief of the Aroland First Nation. "We just want governments to work with us."

Gagnon noted the groups have been in discussion with Ottawa since May, without getting any resolution.

"Why do we have to go to court to be heard all the time?" he asked.

They've asked the Federal Court to review the file and order Ottawa to do the more thorough, open-ended environmental assessment -- one that includes the perspective of 8,000 natives living in the region.

By going to court, the native groups hope to force Environment Minister Peter Kent to reconsider and order a joint review panel immediately. A lawyer for the native group said the case would not likely be argued at Federal Court until next spring.

"The government is rushing the environmental assessment project to start Ring of Fire development by 2015, to provide a boost to the economy," said Roger Oshkineegish of the Nibinamik First Nation.

The mine proposal by Ohio-based Cliff Natural Resources Inc., is considered just the first of what could be a mining boom in the Ring of Fire, a remote, 5,100-square-kilometre wetland region with more than 30,000 mining claims.

Cliff says its chromite operation would create as many as 1,300 direct jobs, including up to 500 at the mine site, up to 300 in transportation and another 500 at a production facility somewhere further south.

The company has already begun lobbying the Ontario government to cut it a break on electricity rates as the price of locating its ferrochrome production plant in the province.

The native groups pointed to Newfoundland and Labrador's Voisey's Bay nickel project as a comparable mine that had the full review panel, and also held up Alberta's oil sands as a project that lacked early oversight.

"We must get it right from the beginning -- not after there are major environmental, cultural and social problems, like the tar sands created in Alberta," said Moonias.

Gagnon put it in simpler terms: "Why is the government rushing? The resources aren't going nowhere."