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The Land Provides What Mining Can't

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December 3, 2008

The Land Provides What Mining Can't

KI leaders take their complaints to the United Nations

by Jon Thompson

A march in Toronto in solidarity with imprisoned KI leaders, including Chief Morris. Photo: Allan Cedillo Lissner

KITCHENUHMAYKOOSIB, ONTARIO–When Ontario imprisoned six of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation's leaders in March, Canada turned its back. In response, the Northwestern Ontarian First Nation, fighting to keep mining exploration off of their traditional land, is going over Canada’s head.

The community has made formal accusations of treaty violations and human rights charges against Canada for standing by while Ontario jailed Chief Donny Morris and his council for contempt when they stopped Platinex corporation workers at their airport. The case will be presented to the United Nations in February.

Morris doesn’t oppose development, but has strong objections to the Ministry of Natural Resources collecting specimens, and field helicopters buzzing above the countless lakes surrounding KI, in explicit contravention of the wishes of the community. He questions whether the industry has learned anything from his incarceration and the public outcry that allowed for his release.

Five of the KI6. Cecilia Begg, being held in a Kenora jail, was the lone woman arrested and wasn't able to speak to the men who are incarcerated in Thunder Bay. Photo: freeKI6.ca

“We didn’t go through this exercise, going to jail, for another company to test us again,” he said. “We’re not trying to block it, we’re trying to be a part of it. Give us that responsibility ourselves. We’ll work with any corporation, but let us make that choice. We don’t want bureaucrats in Toronto who have never been up here making decisions on our behalf.”

In the thick of the province’s consultations that promise to overhaul the 135-year-old Mining Act, which currently allows for open staking on Crown land, there has been no correspondence from Ontario. In fact, Morris asked to photocopy the 15-page First Nations consultation briefing released by the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines because he had never read it.

Minister Michael Gravelle would deny those claims in a later interview.

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Morris is leaving town at six in the morning for three days at a hunting festival. The caribou are nearly gone, but the moose, deer, migratory birds, fish and other animals can still sustain a population where a can of soup costs $5 at the grocery store.

The water levels are rising, the weather is changing, and he has a difficult time explaining how he once saw seals on a paddle to Ontario’s shores of Hudson Bay.

Times are changing. When he became Chief, he never imagined how, in the middle of nowhere, he could be engaged in this kind of work. After two referenda opposed mining exploration, he had no choice but to go to jail.

“If it’s a different road they want, I’ll gladly take it, but I have to take the mandate of the community, eh?”

“When we were in jail, we went to the UN International Treaty Council,” he explains. “This is global now and that’s the route we decided to take. Not what you see across Canada, blockades and tires burning. That’s not the route to take in this day and age. It’s education.”

When Canada didn’t come to their aid in pressuring Ontario to release them, the KI-6 (the six jailed indigenous leaders) applied for funding to pay legal fees and were turned down. Defining Ontario as a successor state to Canada, Morris feels they were entitled to that defence by treaty right.

“I want to meet the Queen because we’re the Queen’s subjects. That’s the road I want to take. I want to tell the Queen that things aren’t going that well with what you promised us. We’re not doing that well with Ontario. Canada is sitting on the sidelines.”

Having gained international notoriety throughout the ordeal, Morris has been invited to Guatemala to share stories with indigenous peoples there and he hopes to address the United Nations when their concerns air this winter. These trips will depend on whether or he is able to obtain a passport, which has been declined twice.

Why Resist?

While the media roar surrounding KI has concentrated on the black and white questions of development – pro- and anti-mining, jobs and environment – the reasons for resistance have been silenced.

Samuel McKay is a band councilor and the spokesperson on the Platinex issue. McKay is one of a few who are reviving traditional spirituality and culture in the largely Christian community. His ideology on development reflects the balance needed to survive in this remote and ruthless climate. He wants development to be led by his people and the reason for this quickly becomes clear.

There is a barren flagpole overlooking a plaque in view of the lake where the 1929 treaty was signed. The treaty commissioner’s subsequent report read: “In view of the ...fact that the pushing back of the frontier is inevitable due to the spectacular interest and activity in the mining industry with its concomitant development, it was found necessary to extinguish the rights of those Indians resident north of the line AB.”

Walking out onto the peninsula, McKay slices the air with his forearms, revealing the checkerboard of ownership of their land, split before the treaty was signed between territory reclaimed from the church, plots owned by Bell Canada, Northern Stores, and regional carrier Bearskin Airlines. Some drums of waste are neatly gathered on the only private property around. Others are seemingly randomly placed throughout the tall grass leading into the woods and out into open water.

A creek runs to the lake from the former site of a float-plane refueling station where McKay worked as a teenager. He recalls fuel seeping into the ground and accuses the company of holding the lease on the land in order not to have to clean up the waste.

He says he has evidence that the Ministry of Natural Resources was dumping 45 gallon drums with PCBs and proof that it affected the community’s water supply. Environment Canada abandoned a weather station until they were pressured by the community to remove what they had left behind.

“We literally had to fight them to get them to clean up the land, and that’s Environment Canada!” he said. “That has been our experience with development. You wonder why this is the situation we’re in?”

The federal riding of Kenora, in which KI’s traditional territory falls, was identified in a 2006 federal report as having over 11,000 contaminated sites, the highest in the country. Morris’ own trap line crosses the Sherman Lake Mine site, a 400-foot-deep excavation abandoned without cleanup decades ago.

Their community members aren’t new to the mining life or to the boom and bust cycles of the economy it creates. Many of their families flew to Pickle Lake to work in the uranium-mining town that has been nearly abandoned after outliving the excavation. Many of those men continue to die from diseases commonly associated with mining.

When Platinex first came to the table, they were intent on having an open pit mine. To do so, they would have to drain two lakes that claw against these shores. As the community still relies on sustenance fishing, the payoff would have to be substantial to offset the damage to the community's ability to subsist.

He compares their situation with the Saugeen First Nation, who sold part of their land to a pulp and paper company 90 years ago. Today, their water is contaminated, there is no wild game, and no forest. The only way their people can survive, he explains, is through education and employment. Despite the dizzying scenes of past industrial ventures, whose removal costs would be substantial judging by the cost of flying a can of soup into KI, he insists that they are still in a position where their survival is best served by the land.

“We’re making the stand because we still have the water, the forest, the land, the fish and the animals. There are people in this community who live off of the land year around. Right now, we value this more than the minerals under the ground. We know that the mining industry is a boom and bust industry. It’s good for 30 years at the most... we want to use this for as long as possible.”

In the midst of KI’s struggle, AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine signed a Memorandum of Understanding that all First Nations were ready to go into business with industry. For McKay, it justified what he sees as trespassing without consent on their traditional land and undercut their right to self-determination. For now, the untouched wilderness surrounding the region’s ten partnered communities bears the fruit of their survival, and the negotiations with Platinex are off.

There are plans for development in KI, but the leadership insists that it be their priorities on their terms. In the next 20 years, they’re looking to eliminate the fuel generating station that powers their community in favour of hydroelectric generation. Ready to partner with any industry under conditions that achieve balance, the potential benefits must outweigh the costs.

“Really, we should thank Platinex for bringing this to the forefront,” McKay laughs. “It was going to have to happen eventually.”

Jon Thompson is a journalist, author, and media activist in Northwestern Ontario.

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