Michael Gravelle, Liberal MPP for Thunder Bay-Superior North, was re-elected for the fifth straight time in the fall 2011 election. Formerly the minister of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry, Gravelle was shifted to his new role as minister of Natural Resources in the new Liberal cabinet.
Gravelle sat down with Wawatay News to discuss politics, the new mining act and opportunities for First Nation involvement in future economic development.
Wawatay News: Thinking back all those years to 1995 when you first ran, what made you think that politics is a venue to affect change?
Michael Gravelle: For some time I’ve felt that the role of a political representative is an important one. Being able to advocate and fight for your constituents, see them get the best possible treatments from governments is always something I believed in. As a very young man I began working in the political field by working as an assistant to a federal member of parliament who subsequently became a cabinet minister during the time of Pierre Trudeau’s prime minister-ship in the late 60s and 70s. In fact I probably worked in one of the first constituency offices, and that’s where I really decided how important it was for politicians to help our constituents. So when I decided in 1995 to seek political office myself I saw it as a natural extension to my political background, but one that also gave me an opportunity to strongly fight for the best interests of my constituents and try and make the world a better place.
You’ve travelled all across northern Ontario. Where are the hidden gems most people don’t see?
Well, northern Ontario is just an extraordinary part of the province. It has so many beautiful parts to it. There are so many examples it is almost impossible to start. But certainly in my own backyard is Ouimet Canyon, a beautiful spot about a 45 minute drive from Thunder Bay. Kakabeka Falls is something we always take our visitors to see. And certainly going further north, I’ve had the privilege of travelling further north as well, it’s a unique and gorgeous part of the world. I think all northerners take great pride in coming from the north and I think why you tend to see northern representatives who are so passionate about our part of the province.
When you look at the Ontario government to First Nation relationship, how in your view should that relationship be defined?
I can certainly speak on behalf of myself and the opportunity I’ve had to work to with the Aboriginal leadership and Aboriginal communities all across northern Ontario. What it’s very much about is building respect and trust. Obviously there’s a long history in terms of the relationship between our First Nations, our Métis Nation and governments, and I’ve worked very hard to build that respect and trust. I think our government has done that exact same thing. There’s no question what I see are extraordinary opportunities in northern Ontario for economic development and for improvements in terms of the social realities of our communities, particularly those First Nation communities that have not always benefited from those economic development projects. I think I see a real change in that. I really do believe that many of these projects, almost all of them, won’t go forward unless we do see benefits to First Nations, and I’ve worked hard alongside many of the chiefs and the Elders to help realize that goal.
You had, some would say, a tough job of bringing in the Mining Act during the last term. What are your thoughts on how that was received and what advice do you have for your colleague as he tries to bring in phases two and three?
I certainly recall very much when I was asked to modernize the Mining Act by the premier, it was one of the first things he asked me to do four years ago when I became minister of Northern Development and Mines. What seemed incredibly important was that we needed to take old legislation and have it reflect 21st century values. Those include the values of making sure that First Nation communities are able to benefit from the mining resources that come to their communities. At the same time the challenge was to make sure that we maintained a positive investment climate in the province of Ontario.
We worked extraordinarily closely with the Aboriginal communities, and we spent, I think, an unprecedented amount of time working together on trying to advance and modernize the Mining Act while trying to maintain the positive investment climate that was so vital to future progress in the mining sector.
I wouldn’t say it ended up being a perfect piece of legislation, but we moved the yardsticks forward. There still is obviously work to do, but we changed how the Mining Act reflected those values with the work that we did and the consultation we did. And I certainly continue to work in that vein with the leadership and with the communities and I think it’s very clear that Minister (Rick) Bartolucci will do exactly the same.
The Far North Act, some would say another vital piece of legislation. Another tough one, also, to bring in. How important is it to get land use plans in northern Ontario completed as we go forward with so many things going on?
Certainly I’m looking forward to having significant discussions, if not consultations with the First Nation leadership related to the Far North Act. But I think a piece of legislation that ultimately affords a First Nation the opportunity to determine where they want to see development and where they want to see protection, to me is a very positive way to start.
When I’m meeting with the chiefs and the Elders in various communities, they want to be able to determine what is best for their own community. The land use planning process in that sense is an unprecedented one. It’s certainly the largest land use planning process in the history of the province. So I’m eager to carry on those discussions. There are some land use plans that have been completed in the Far North, I think Cat Lake and Slate Falls have completed them and there are others that are very deeply engaged. I realize that there are other discussions that need to go on and certainly strong positions being expressed by First Nations in terms of the decisions that are being made. But again, I do believe that to have this opportunity for the First Nations to determine what is the best use for their communities and their traditional lands is in and of itself a good thing.
What did you see as your biggest accomplishment as Minister of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry?
I think it would be fair to say it was the modernized Mining Act. We did take a piece of legislation that had not been updated for a significant number of years. We did bring it forward. In the preamble it recognizes Aboriginal and treaty rights. We had a form of consultation that was unprecedented. Again, while no piece of legislation is perfect, I think we really did advance the relationship between First Nations and the industry. And what we’re seeing, despite some of the challenges that are out there with some communities working with mining companies, what we’re also seeing is an increase in the number of memorandums of understanding and agreements put in place between communities and mining companies and other forestry companies as well. So probably if I’m asked the question, the fact that we were able to modernize the Mining Act would be the thing I’m most proud of.
Now you’re shifting to the Ministry of Natural Resources. How do you view that shift? And how does that position allow you to advance all these issues?
Well, I’m excited about it. Certainly the premier has made it very clear to all the ministers and members of the government that our priority is going to be the creation of jobs and economic development. I think the Ministry of Natural Resources, particularly now that I’ve carried forestry with me into this portfolio, is going to give us an opportunity to see those jobs and that economic development as a very important part of our ministry.
First of all I’m just honoured to be invited back into the cabinet. That’s a very special privilege. But also to be put into a ministry that has such significance all across the province of Ontario, and obviously incredibly important to northerners, is a privilege I’m delighted to have and I’m going to work very hard to move forward in a positive way.
You mentioned the opportunities that you see for First Nation people going forward. Give us a couple examples of where those opportunities may lay.
I do think that when one looks at the Ring of Fire development, what is very clear to me is that in order for this development to move forward in a positive way the First Nations, particularly those that are most impacted by this development, need to see the benefits.
While I think there will be challenges all along the process, that is now something that is pretty much recognized by everyone. For a project like this to go forward, it needs to go forward with the knowledge that indeed the First Nations will see benefits not just in the short term but in the long term. And that will make a huge difference for their communities and their young people in the future. That’s clearly how things may have changed over the last ten years, and perhaps there’s a whole different mindset and understanding of how important it is that these benefits need to be clearly understood by the community and the First Nations themselves. On that basis I think we have the opportunity to see a tremendous economic development opportunities for a project like this.
There’s a lot of work to do and there will always be, but certainly from my perspective as the new minister of Natural Resources I am very excited to be in a position to continue work on those kinds of opportunities for the north in particular, and the province as a whole.
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