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A Violation of Algonquin Law

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November 1, 2008

A Violation of Algonquin Law

First Nations spearhead resistance to uranium mining

by Sara Falconer

Resistance to uranium exploration has been fierce. "If you think there's been an uproar now, it's nothing compared to what would happen if they actually announced there was going to be a mine," says organizer Wolfe Erlichman Photo: Allan Cedillo Lissner

TORONTO, ONTARIO–Ardoch and Shabot Obaadjiwan Algonquins and their neighbours along Sharbot Lake learned in late 2006 that Frontenac Ventures Corporation (FVC) was planning a uranium mining project on the land they live on. They have refused to let that happen, withstanding long days and nights in the freezing cold, on hunger strikes and in prison. It has taken a toll on the communities, but it has also brought them closer together.

The land in question is in North Frontenac Township, southwest of Ottawa, in an area which is the subject of ongoing land claims between the Ontario government and the Algonquin people and their government. Algonquins say the land was never ceded, and that they should have the right to free, prior and informed consent before the Ontario government can sell mining concessions.

FVC, a private company based in Toronto that specializes in uranium mining in Canada, was granted permission to drill hundreds of 200-metre-deep holes for samples of uranium-rich granite, hoping to use the core samples to secure financial backing to develop a mine on the 30,000-acre site.

Paula Sherman, Ardoch Nation co-Chief, says that mining exploration is an affront to traditional Algonquin law, which mandates a healthy relationship with the land. Although FVC's geologists continue to insist that there will be no ill-effects from the process, ecologists maintain that a uranium mine will have dire environmental consequences.

According to MiningWatch Canada, uranium deposits in Ontario are typically so low in quantity – around one per cent – that mining requires removing huge quantities of rock, which is milled. Tonnes of hazardous tailings (waste rock) are left over. Byproducts released into the air during the process include deadly radon gas as well as thorium-230 and radium-226, which continue to be hazardous for thousands of years. Even exploratory drilling can contaminate the water table with radioactive materials.

Donna Dillman, a 53-year-old grandmother and member of the Community Coalition Against Mining Uranium (CCAMU), went on a 68-day hunger strike at the gates of the barricade in an act of solidarity. Photo: Allan Cedillo Lissner

Hundreds of Ardoch and Shabot First Nations protesters occupied the site of the planned exploratory drilling beginning in summer 2007. Over 150 local settlers also supported the protest from outside the fence, bringing food and other supplies to the camp. Donna Dillman, a 53-year-old grandmother and member of the Community Coalition Against Mining Uranium (CCAMU), went on a 68-day hunger strike at the gates of the barricade in an act of solidarity.

"We have been very lucky in that this is an issue that also impacts non-Algonquin people," Sherman said in an interview with The Dominion in October 2008. "We formed an alliance against this project in November of 2006 and it has been building momentum ever since. We remain strongly committed to this alliance and our partnership with our neighbours in stopping irresponsible development that poses a significant risk to the entire region."

Robert Lovelace, Ardoch co-Chief and Aboriginal Student Councilor at Fleming College in Peterborough, served more than three months in jail after being found guilty of contempt of court for refusing to obey an Ontario court injunction ordering protesters to leave the site. Lovelace was fined $25,000, and Sherman, $15,000. Lovelace was released in May 2008. In their decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal cited deep flaws in the province's antiquated Mining Act.

Sherman explains that their fines were stayed and they were awarded $50,000 by the court for their legal costs, $40,000 to be paid by FVC and $10,000 by Ontario, based on the fact that the province failed to uphold its fiduciary responsibilities to the Aboriginal community.

Not long after the court's decision in the Ardochs’ favour, Dalton McGuinty's government announced that it would be updating the Ontario Mining Act – but refused to include uranium in the public consultations. Provincial authorities have refused to hold an inquiry into the impacts of uranium mining and nuclear power.

"What [the province] says publicly is that they are committed to nuclear power, and that it would be hypocritical for them to be against uranium mining in our province," says Wolfe Erlichman of CCAMU.

"This government is very committed to mining... and the mining lobby is a very powerful group," says Erlichman.

According to the Ontario government, the province is the world's "mine-financing capital," with over 80 per cent of public financing for the global mining industry in 2006 going through the Toronto Stock Exchange.

"We do whatever we can. We tried to raise the issue during the [federal] election, and when they had the sessions to review the Mining Act, we had a big gathering in Kingston," says Erlichman. Around 200 people attended the public session, hoping to remind provincial representatives that 24 municipalities have asked for a moratorium on uranium exploration until environmental concerns and questions around First Nations land have been resolved.

"What they did at these sessions was, they killed us with kindness. They said, you can talk about whatever you want... but of course a ban on uranium mining wasn't on the table," Erlichman says.

The barricades came down in the spring, and there was little change in the situation for several months, aside from the general economic downturn. "The price of uranium has been going down," says Erlichman. "If the price of uranium had stayed high, I think there'd be more interest on the part of the company."

But in September, FVC filed for Leave to Appeal the Appellant Court decision that freed Robert Lovelace and stayed the fines against him and Sherman. In a statement, Lovelace responded, "We welcome the opportunity to argue the issues before the Supreme Court of Canada. Frontenac Ventures must be mad to have kicked this sleeping dog."

"We expect these to move forward and require a lot of work and funds," Sherman says. "We have initiated another fundraising campaign to support our resistance both within the court and in the region.”

To our knowledge, FVC has continued to pursue exploration work against our wishes on our land. All of the offers we have received from Ontario have had preexisting conditions to allow drilling, which we do not support and which we consider to be a violation of Algonquin law."

As of October, it appears the latest recourse may come from provincial law.

"It has recently come to our attention that while FVC was busy participating in our criminalization in the courts, they neglected to renew some of the permits that they had taken out with the province on our lands," Sherman says.

"These lands are no longer covered under the injunction and under Ontario law. FVC has no legal right to be there doing any work. They have appealed to have their permits renewed after the fact, and Ontario has now come to us with an offer to negotiate those permits. Our council met this past weekend and the prior decision to oppose uranium exploration in that area remains in force."

FVC president George White did not respond to calls for comment.

Erlichman admits that the process is frustrating, but not without hope. "It's been two years – there are some of us who have been literally working on this full-time for that long," he says. "They haven't drilled yet. So in one sense it's been a victory. The longer it lasts, the more difficult it becomes for them.

"Sharbot Lake is a fairly populated area as far as mine sites go," he adds. "If you think there's been an uproar now, it's nothing compared to what would happen if they actually announced there was going to be a mine."

Sara Falconer is a member of Toronto ABCF and co-publisher of 4strugglemag and Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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