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How Does the Settler State Prime a New Extractive Frontier?

How Does the Settler State Prime a New Extractive Frontier?

10. 6. 2022

Dayna Nadine Scott

This past winter, an article in Corporate Knights magazine asked: “What happens if Indigenous people say no to mining the minerals needed to run EVs [electric vehicles]?” It is true that transitioning to EVs has been positioned as one of the few strategies governments can embrace in North America that may have a relatively immediate effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And in settler-colonial Canada, the minerals needed to make EV batteries will come from Indigenous lands. Couple that fact with the speed at which those metals would need to be found, extracted, and processed to mitigate the climate crisis, and the sheer volume of them that would be required, and it’s clear that an intensified clash with Indigenous rights movements is coming. We have only to look to the Attawapiskat River watershed in the far north of Ontario to glimpse how such extraction is escalating – and how it might be resisted.

A new extractive frontier, with a thin green gloss

Flying over the Attawapiskat River in a float plane this summer, it was obvious why members of the Neskantaga First Nation emphasize that they live on a “river system.” Below us was a complex patchwork of more water than land, more tributaries than river, circuitous connections and interconnections. It was obvious that the community members who guided the 20-foot freighter canoes that had gone on ahead of our group to the camp at Beteau Lake would have needed to draw on deep knowledge of their homelands to navigate what they call the lifeblood of their people. 

We were a group of invited guests, joining the river excursion this year to witness the launch of Neskantaga’s new sturgeon protection program, Namekaa Gaagige, which means Many Sturgeon Forever in the community’s language. Calling the program “new,” though, holds a certain irony. The Anishinaabe and Anishini peoples of this part of Treaty No. 9 have been taking care of their relative the sturgeon since time immemorial. They recently obtained funding to support that work from a branch of the Canadian government, based on the fact that the lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens, in the colonial vernacular) of southern Hudson Bay–James Bay is listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, Schedule 1, as a species of “special concern.”

In actual fact, Neskantaga First Nation is motivated by a clear and present threat to their relative, whom they consider to be healthy and thriving in the Attawapiskat River system. The delegation of First Nation members and guests on the river this past August was making its way to the site of a proposed crossing of the river by a new mining road, said to be needed to reach the so-called Ring of Fire – a cluster of mineral deposits discovered in the far north of Ontario as early as 2007, which has had a string of successive governments salivating over prospects for “opening up the north” to development. It has been called Ontario’s oil sands, described as a multi-generational wealth opportunity.

The mining driving the latest push for roads in the Ring of Fire, however, is glossed in a new green veneer. Proponents now aggressively position extraction in the Ring of Fire as a necessary part of the coming energy transition, emphasizing that “critical minerals” are needed for so-called clean tech and the digital economy. A World Bank report titled “Minerals for Climate Action” predicts that the transition will be extremely mineral-intensive. And so, while the initial hype about the Ring of Fire was centred around the mineral chromite, said to be crucial in manufacturing steel to fuel China’s insatiable demand, the main target is now nickel: an important component of electric vehicle batteries. 

The Anishinaabe and Anishini communities in the Ring of Fire are thus thrust onto yet another “new frontier” for extraction. These communities are small, remote First Nations in a constant state of social emergency, enduring what many Indigenous leaders call an ongoing genocide. They include members like those I spoke with on the river this summer, whose relationship to the river and the sturgeon was severed by the trauma of residential schools or government-run day schools. The disruption to intergenerational transmission of language, laws, and practices on the land is evident even as it is being actively overcome. One elder grandmother who made it to the Beteau Lake camp this summer felt it was especially important for her to come along, as “someone who carries the water” – has responsibilities to take care of the river for future generations. “The teachings really start to come out as you get older,” she told me. 

On the river, as Chief Wayne Moonias observed to me, the community is calm. Ceremonies are performed. People can relax, share, reflect, and laugh together. But back on the reserve in Neskantaga, daily life is made hard by chronic state underfunding of basic services, which is manifest in youth suicide and addiction crises, substandard and overcrowded housing, and a persistent lack of access to safe drinking water. Neskantaga’s boil water advisory is the longest-running in the country – standing at more than 10,000 days or 27 years.

A beautiful artwork of a sturgeon swimming through plant-filled waters, rendered in black and white with a visible red heart at the core of the fish. Below the image, text reads

Image by Christi Belcourt. Used with permission of the artist.

Slippery state strategies  

Is this how the settler state primes an extractive frontier? It looks a lot like the communities are being “starved out,” such that capitulating to mining starts to seem like the only escape. They exist in a kind of limbo: always anticipating major improvements that the state promises are coming, yet with their daily existence void of any meaningful progress towards mitigation of the ongoing social emergency. In Neskantaga, members of the band council try to find time to attend to email inboxes filled with “e-blasts” from pricey consultants hired by road and mine proponents, inviting them to webinars to “consult” about their concerns around the roads and mines assumed by many to be inevitable.

With mining now positioned as critical to addressing the climate crisis and transitioning to a “clean economy,” government announcements ooze with the language of “inclusion” and “partnership.” Corporate plans boast of bringing prosperity to “Canada’s First Nations” by enlisting them in the production of batteries for electric cars. Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, Jonathan Wilkinson, says that “there is no energy transition without critical minerals.” The governing federal Liberals’ Mines to Mobility Strategy aims to “attract investments that build up Canada’s battery supply chain, from mining and processing raw materials to assembling road-ready electric vehicles.” Even Ontario’s premier Doug Ford, who once mocked EVs as “Teslas for millionaires,” now sees that mining can be linked to the province’s auto sector strategy, all the while being “climate-friendly” – dissipating tensions between Ford and Prime Minister Trudeau. Citing the fact that global conflict, namely the war in Ukraine, is exacerbating supply chain vulnerabilities, the settler state in Canada is now united around building strategic alliances for supplying critical minerals for the automotive sector, national defence, and clean tech. How this manifests in policy terms: popular rebates for EV consumers; tax breaks and other exploration incentives for mining companies.

Mineral exploration is a major threat to Indigenous communities in Treaty No. 9, primarily because of the colonial assumption built into Canada’s constitutional structure that locates the ownership of resources, including subsurface resources like minerals, with the provinces. This colonial vestige works in combination with violent state legislation, such as the Mining Act, which creates vested rights for extractive corporations from the moment of claim staking (now electronic). In this way, under settler law, Indigenous communities begin to lose control over their territories at the exploration phase, before any drilling even takes place. More funds directed towards exploration will thus bring more conflict, as Indigenous peoples refuse to be dispossessed of their governing authority in relation to the lands and waters they occupy, steward, and protect.

It is essential to understand that “critical minerals” is not a scientific or technical category, but is rather a political designation, bound up with notions of scarcity and national security and operating in a specific geopolitical context. Currently in Canada, political interest in critical minerals is fuelled by a discourse of inter-imperial competition with China, and linked to a trade agreement with the US that aims to secure a stable North American supply chain of minerals central to the manufacturing of batteries and other clean tech. US President Biden’s momentous transformation of the Build Back Better Act into the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act has been described as “part industrial strategy, part climate plan and part social justice — all with a protectionist bent.” What the Act means for Canada is still unfolding, but it’s clear that its definition of “America” includes Canada insofar as significant consumer rebates will be available for EVs assembled here, stimulating new investments in Canada’s automotive sector. But most significantly, the Act also provides major incentives for the vehicles’ batteries to be built from minerals sourced in “America” – which is a major boost for those pushing development in the Ring of Fire.

Enter the mining company Wyloo Metals, a subsidiary of Tattarang, a large Australian private investment group owned by billionaire Andrew Forest (“Twiggy”), who made his fortune mining iron ore with the Fortescue Metals Group. Wyloo Metals recently acquired Noront, the junior mining company that originally “discovered” the high-grade deposits in the region, and now holds the vast majority of mining stakes in the Ring of Fire. The company claims to have been founded to develop the “next generation of mines that will produce the raw materials needed for a cleaner, more sustainable future.” In a recent pitch to the Matawa Chiefs’ Council, Wyloo CEO Luca Giacovazzi said

The Ring of Fire is home to expansive deposits of these [future-facing] metals, making this a once-in-a-generation opportunity to be part of the green revolution. Working hand-in-hand with First Nation and regional partners, we’ll develop the Ring of Fire into one of Ontario’s great mineral districts that will be pivotal in the world’s transition to a lower carbon future.

How should critical people think about extraction in this new shade of green? It’s clear that the supposedly green economy will have its sacrifice zones and “wastelands” just as the fossil fuel era did – that there are, and will continue to be, vast disparities in who will reap the benefits and who will shoulder the burdens of our collective efforts to meet our needs and wants, disparities that can shape even our collective efforts to save ourselves from the worst of climate calamity.

As resilient as the sturgeon

Let’s take a step back. In 2011, a period of negotiations began between Ontario and the Matawa First Nations, a collection of nine communities close to the Ring of Fire mineral deposits and likely to be impacted by the infrastructure necessary for their development. Those negotiations were built on the solid foundation of the solemn Mamow-Wecheekapawetahteewin Unity Declaration, which insists that the nine communities would “stand together” – a reflection of their pre-existing and continuing jurisdiction over their homelands. 

Despite this principled start, however, in 2017 the province and industry began signing deals with Matawa First Nations one by one as the communities were declared “mining-ready.” As of today, despite a chorus of voices calling for a robust examination of the environmental and social impacts of opening up the region to roads and mining, the situation is a mishmash of several individual environmental assessments being put forward by First Nation road proponents, who are uncomfortably sandwiched between the industry and state boosters of the extractivist vision. A few communities in the heart of the Attawapiskat River watershed, like Neskantaga, are stubbornly clinging to a different notion of their people’s futures on the land, their legal obligations to protect it, and their political authority to decide. As of now, the settler state’s desperate “divide-and-rule” strategy appears as if it will prevail, although the story is clearly not over. 

In mainstream liberal circles, it’s accepted that these tensions can be resolved with a push to “reimagine the role of Indigenous peoples and their lands” as one in which “Indigenous peoples are at the helm.” Indigenous communities are invited to share in the ostensible rewards of extractive projects. According to this logic, governments and industry simply need to ramp up their partnership game to bring new minerals to market quickly, thereby assisting in the goal of achieving net-zero emissions. The whole framing involves a striking inversion of responsibility for the climate crisis. Indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted by the adverse effects of climate change, even while they have benefitted the least from the greenhouse gas emissions that have caused it. However green the motivations of the settler state in this process of extending mining’s frontiers, the effect is that more Indigenous homelands are drawn into relations designed to intensify extraction. These relations are likely to create real tensions with obligations under Indigenous laws to steward lands and waters according to logics of care and reciprocity. 

We can also observe how Indigenous peoples work through and around colonial constraints to preserve possibilities for bringing about their own visions for the future of their homelands. Namekaa Gaagige, Neskantaga’s sturgeon protection project, is just one manifestation of the widespread resurgence of Indigenous laws, cultural practices, and expressions of inherent jurisdiction exploding across the far north and beyond. Sturgeon can live more than a hundred years and travel hundreds of kilometres in their lifetimes. They represent an important food source for the community; they hold immense cultural and spiritual significance. This past August on the Attawapiskat River, community members performed ceremonies during the harvest of sturgeon, which were then carefully cleaned and packed to be sent back to nourish elders and their families in the community.

From Neskantaga’s perspective, the critical minerals angle is just the latest in a long chain of rationales for extraction in their homelands: tactics used to gain access to Indigenous lands for settler purposes, and justified in whatever language current political configurations demand. Even if it is now linked to legitimate climate policy objectives, the current push for critical mineral mining in the Ring of Fire is continuous with, rather than a break from, extractive colonial relations.

In Neskantaga First Nation, it has become clear that desperately needed improvements to community infrastructure, such as drinking water and housing, are available only contingently, if at all: in exchange for joining the wage economy and consenting to be more fully “included” in the colonial system, folded into the narrative of progress crafted by outsiders to the region. But Neskantaga has pushed back repeatedly, demanding to exercise their inherent jurisdiction to decide. 

Take as an example the period leading up to Canada’s recent release of the Draft Agreement to Conduct a Regional Assessment in the Ring of Fire Area, intended to be a big-picture look at the likely socio-ecological impacts of opening up the far north to mining and roads. Canada repeatedly deflected demands that affected Matawa and Mushkegowuk nations be made partners in the decision-making, and dismissed proposals that those nations’ jurisdiction be respected in a joint commission of some sort. Throughout these exchanges, Neskantaga “pushed up against the desire of the liberal state to consider its governance just,” as Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson puts it. The more that Canada tries to shine a soft light on its progressive approach to “next-generation” environmental assessment, the more Neskantaga and its allies point to Canada’s insistence on maintaining the superiority of its own laws and decision-making powers, and question the arbitrariness of settler authority on lands occupied exclusively by Indigenous peoples.

Resisting new colonial techniques of dispossession

The liberal desires so plainly laid out in the Ring of Fire, the story that Canada really wants to believe, is that Indigenous peoples chose this path. But what spending some time on the Attawapiskat River made even more clear to me is that the people of Neskantaga are actively refusing the notion of an inevitable trajectory towards elimination. Neskantaga mobilizes collective rights and responsibilities to steward the Attawapiskat River watershed, to work from a position of consensus in relation to the broader Neskantaga community, and from a non-hierarchical position in relation to neighbouring communities. The nation insists that the standard governing their approval of infrastructure projects proposed for their homelands must be free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). 

“Consent,” according to Simpson, “operates as a technique of recognition and simultaneous dispossession.” It is easy to see how that technique is operationalized in the Ring of Fire and other extractive zones, through deal-making between First Nations and mining companies. This kind of “extraction contracting” – the negotiation of private contractual agreements to govern extraction – is becoming increasingly common. The kinds of deals include most often impact-benefit agreements (where First Nations receive promises of enhanced environmental monitoring, training and employment opportunities for band members, and sometimes community perks like a new community centre or rink, in exchange for promising not to oppose or disrupt the project) or equity stakes deals (where First Nations become part-owners and thus share in the profits of the enterprise). But they also exist in a variety of other forms, such as resource-revenue sharing deals between tribal councils and the provincial government, early exploration agreements and memoranda of understanding, and various agreements with governments and agencies pertaining to infrastructure or environmental assessment funding. In all cases, the negotiations are secretive and give rise to a dynamic of competition between neighbouring communities, the imposition of settler logics and timelines, and the dominance of lawyers. In all cases, the signed deal becomes a stand-in for consent. Despite a myriad of strong reasons why the mere fact of a signed agreement with a band council cannot be evidence of FPIC as it is understood in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), extraction in the contemporary moment seems to be authorized by this “ruse of consent,” as Simpson calls it.

In the Ring of Fire, as elsewhere, the successful conclusion of a deal provides crucial legitimation for political actors supporting a given contested resource project, and a valued asset for companies seeking to market their projects to potential investors (as was seen in the Noront acquisition by Wyloo Metals). It can also drive a wedge between neighbours and relatives. But “consent” is positioned not only as a full and robust answer to any lingering doubts about the legitimacy of the underlying extractive project; it is also meant to put to rest any lingering doubts about the legitimacy of the Crown’s claim to exclusive governing authority, now routinely drawn into question in critical circles.  

In refusing to make their homelands available for settler-state goals and extractivist visions, Indigenous resistance is working against the prevailing colonial legal regimes designed to advance extractivism by denying Indigenous jurisdiction. On the river, it was obvious that there is a deep rift between the principles upon which Neskantaga stewards its homelands – principles of reciprocal relationality with lands, waters, and other beings – and extractive logics, in which elements of the earth are understood as resources that exist for the sole purpose of enriching humans. In the “extractive zone,” as the environmental humanities scholar Macarena Gómez-Barris terms it, complex social ecologies and lifeways are dismantled to achieve conversion of environmental elements into resources for capital. Indigenous legal orders, which include not just the right to take but also obligations to protect or to steward, are emerging as a direct challenge to extractivism, and thus to the application and claimed universal legitimacy of settler law. This challenge is now forcefully expressed as a “conflict of laws”: with Indigenous peoples pointing to their own pre-existing, still operating, and always evolving legal orders as the source of their obligations to protect and defend the land. Neskantaga’s Anishinaabe legal order includes obligations to protect the sturgeon, for example, among other relations in the Attawapiskat River system, what Chief Wayne Moonias calls the “sacred and spiritual landscape” of his people. 

Plans for the Northern Road Link, the contested mining road described earlier, include a bridge across the Attawapiskat River in the heart of Neskantaga homelands. An affidavit by Chief Wayne Moonias, filed as part of litigation over the failure of the road proponents and Ontario to pause the environmental assessment during the pandemic (including a period in 2020 during which the entire community had to be evacuated because of a water emergency), says: 

Our ancestors are buried throughout our homelands, and there are many sacred and ceremonial sites located throughout the Attawapiskat watershed. […] It is essential that these areas remain undisturbed, as they remain an integral link between Neskantaga’s past, present, and future. The ceremonies connect us with our past, and are part of an ongoing process of revitalizing, preserving, and engaging with our culture, and are vital to the future well-being of Neskantaga and the continued protection of the land itself.

What is a just transition to a net-zero economy in this context? What does it look like in particular places and for particular peoples? Breaking out of entrenched patterns of colonial exploitation must be part of the answer. A robust commitment to respecting the FPIC standard is a starting point – but being granted the right to consent to outsiders’ plans is not the same as having the time, space, and capacity to develop your own visions for the future of your homelands, in line with your own social, legal, and political orders.

We must also start to force alternative conceptions of “infrastructures” into play. Tlingit scholar Anne Spice’s re-theorization of “critical infrastructures” is crucial here. Spice argues that we need to abandon ideas of critical infrastructures as the networks that maintain the efficient operation of government and industry, and move towards ideas that centre the interconnected networks of human and other beings that sustain life. As Spice says, “These are relations that require caretaking, which Indigenous peoples are accountable to.” She asks: what counts as vital, and for whom? Similarly, as Anishinaabekwe scholar and environmental advocate Winona LaDuke and logistics scholar Deborah Cowen have argued, “Infrastructure is not inherently colonial – it is also essential for transformation.” 

What is needed is a post-extractive embrace of life-giving, care-taking infrastructures that sustain us in mutual relation. We need to support the reclaiming and restoring of Indigenous jurisdiction in relation to lands and waters through the generation of vital infrastructures. With restored jurisdiction, Indigenous peoples can generate the kinds of vital infrastructures that advance community priorities – and are truly critical to flourishing on the land in line with ecological limits. As Spice says, “We need to see the material connections between the health of our rivers, the future that we want to inhabit, and the future in which we want future generations to be able to live.”


Dayna Nadine Scott is York Research Chair in Environmental Law & Justice in the Green Economy at York University. She is co-director of the Environmental Justice & Sustainability Clinic at Osgoode Hall Law School, which has been working alongside Neskantaga First Nation for the past five years. 

Originally posted on Midnight Sun Magazine