The city where I live is an ecological wonder. Built at the only natural outflow from Lake Superior, Sault Ste Marie is uniquely positioned geographically. Before Europeans arrived, the area was fertile fishing grounds and the site for the gathering of Indigenous people from around the Great Lakes regions. One can only imagine the relationships, trade deals, and peace agreements that developed here over the millennia.
European colonization brought European industry. For a time, this seemed to work out just fine for some. Sure, the Indigenous nations were pushed out. Sure, generations of people grew up dependent on the vagaries of the steel and pulp-paper markets, riding an addictive cycle of boom and bust all the way to the cancer ward. Now, centuries after the beginnings of colonization, we have an economy that putts along, a failed pulp industry, a steel industry that employs a small fraction of the workers it had in its prime, and, to top it off, inter-generational illness. In fact, we have among the highest rates of cancer in Ontario.
With all this in mind, the city is now courting a new saviour in the form of a small mining company called Noront. I am not an economist, but Noront's financial records scream volatility. This company wants to build a ferrochrome refinery on the Great Lakes waterway, in the centre of the city. I won't go into it here because there is lots of information available from more reliable sources, but ferrochrome smelting is lethal business. The nearest comparison to the mill proposed for my city is in Finland. The Finnish refinery, as i understand it, is located away from human settlement, at the edge of open ocean where emissions are difficult to measure.
City Council has already committed to a partnership with this new industry, presenting the key administrators with personalized street signs. Stay tuned.
Below is a version of a letter sent to my councilors and the mayor of SSM It has been edited for this blog posting. If this issue is important to you -- if you live in the region or live downstream -- please consider expressing your thoughts and concerns.
August 12, 2020
Dear Mayor and Councilors,
I hope that you and your family are well in these strange times.
I am writing to express my opposition to Council’s decision to option Sault Ste. Marie for the site of Noront’s ferrochrome refinery. In recent years, through your efforts and those of many young entrepreneurs and visionaries, the Sault economy has experienced a grassroots renewal focused on local services and products. While these endeavours are more modest than the “$100,000/year” jobs promised by Noront, community-based economic growth can be sustainable and environmentally sound in ways that Noront’s interests cannot guarantee. It is my contention that the opportunities found in community-based initiatives are more realistic than the promises made by Noront, which has no real connection to or investment in Sault Ste. Marie, its ecosystem, and the long-term health of its people.
Our history as an industrial centre will lead many to accept Noront’s interest as a grand opportunity. By force of habit, the Sault would accept Noront and its potential dangers. The promise of steady industrial jobs is seductive to many people in our community who have grown up in industry and believe that prosperity and well-being can be manufactured in a furnace. Partnering with Noront is an easy, temporary answer to our long struggle in creating sustainable employment. It is easy because we have always looked to industry for economic salvation. It is temporary because Noront is interested in Sault Ste. Marie for its infrastructure and access to transportation and would choose any community that met its technical demands and welcomed its ambitions. I ask that City Council look more deeply at Noront’s proposal and at the company’s history and track record for community development. Are they conscientious, proven partners? Or are they looking to make their reputation on St. Mary’s waterway?
There has been much debate over the safety of the ferrochrome refinery process City Council wants to bring to the Sault. Health professionals and environmentalists have addressed the very real possibility for inter-generational health effects from Noront’s proposal. I do not have the expertise to add to these arguments. However, the harmful effects of centuries of industrial activity on the health of our region are widely documented. We are now, again, at a turning point. We have the choice to break away from the old, default patterns of behavior that generate dramatic boom-bust economies in favour of a more egalitarian, sustainable community-based model.
I understand that the challenges to build an environmentally sound local economy are many, and the temptation to sacrifice future health for apparently immediate prosperity can seem like a good deal. It is my fear that partnership with Noront in the contentious and environmentally devastating “Ring of Fire” project will lead us to deeper dependence upon limited resources and externally based industry. This is the time to be bold and to reject a return to old patterns.
Batchewana First Nations has expressed its opposition to the ferrochrome refinery, and Sault Ste. Marie should follow its lead. The band’s opposition alone should give us pause.
Thank you for all that you do.