First Nations express concerns about fast-tracking of battery plant project

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Several First Nations communities fear Windsor’s $5-billion electric vehicle battery plant will go ahead without Indigenous consultation if the province expedites necessary zoning approvals.

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Although the Government of Ontario is legally required to engage First Nations communities if it grants Windsor’s request for a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) — a provincial trump card that lets the province immediately authorize development — for 230 acres at Banwell Road and EC Row Avenue, Caldwell First Nation Chief Mary Duckworth on Monday expressed skepticism.

“We are seeking the City of Windsor’s support to ensure the adequate consultation and accommodation of our First Nations confederacy is undertaken,” Duckworth told city council.

Duckworth also asked that council delay its request for an MZO until after Indigenous groups had been consulted.

To meet an “aggressive schedule” laid out by Stellantis and LG Energy Solutions, city administration council urged to request an MZO to fast-track the rezoning of land assembled for the NextStar Energy Inc. factory that is not yet designated for manufacturing use. An MZO would not be appealable to the Ontario Land Tribunal and does not require public consultation.

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Following the usual steps to rezone each parcel without an MZO would take several months. An appeal to the Ontario Land Tribunal, which would be possible if the city rezoned the land as usual, could add another year or two to the approvals process. With giga factory construction scheduled to begin this August, a staff report said the city would need an MZO to meet its deadline, or face a “significant risk of losing the planned investment.”

Jelena Payne, the city’s commissioner of economic development and innovation, said there are “very tight timelines associated” with the factory project, “however, notwithstanding the requirements for the province to do the consultations as part of that process.”

When asked by Ward 9 Coun. Kieran McKenzie if she supported the massive investment expected to create 2,500 direct jobs, Duckworth did not answer directly, instead stating that “no nation should go over top any other nation.” She also voiced concern about an archeological assessment performed at the site without input from Caldwell First Nation, as well as findings that the endangered Butler’s Gartersnake inhabits the land.

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In a written submission, Walpole Island First Nation consultation manager Janet Macbeth said that the first nation “knows that the timelines are very sensitive” to secure the project, “but we do have concern that an MZO will shortchange the consultation process with WIFN.”

While several councilors acknowledged the Indigenous delegates’ unease, they voted unanimously to seek an MZO from the province in a letter from Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens to avoid jeopardizing the largest private sector investment in Ontario history.

On the motion, McKenzie asked that the mayor’s correspondence also “cite the critical need” for the province to “meet their duty to consult” with Indigenous communities as part of the project, with the expectation of “resolutions to be reached.”

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The only other time an MZO has been issued in Windsor was in 1998 when the province issued a zoning order to allow slot machines at the former Windsor Raceway.

Until a few years ago, zoning orders from the province were used sporadically, with about one MZO issued per year on average. The Doug Ford Conservatives, however, have faced criticism for bypassing local planning rules to authorize dozens of developments — 44 between March 2019 and March 2021 alone, according to Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s annual report for 2021.

“The province has abused the MZO process in terms of its land development in the last year to 18 months,” McKenzie said. “The use of this tool is evolving into places that I’m not comfortable with.

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“Having said that, this project is exactly what the MZO was created to facilitate — there’s $5 billion on the line, 2,500 direct jobs, likely well over 10,000 indirect jobs.”

It has been made clear to him, McKenzie said, “that if there was no MZO, there would be no investment. There’s no way I’d be standing in the way of that, despite my serious concerns with what we heard tonight.”

Ward 6 Coun. Jo-Anne Gignac said it’s “essential” that the city move forward, “knowing full well” the province must consult with Indigenous communities before issuing the zoning order.

“The MZO is not a process that is used regularly. I understand that,” Gignac said. “It’s very unusual. But I think we have to have a level of trust in the province and the process that will be undertaken.”

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