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KENORA, ONTARIO—Following the third reading of the Far North Act, the Chiefs of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) in Northern Ontario have vowed to “unanimously oppose the introduction of Bill 191 into law, and will continue to do so by any means necessary.” NAN represents First Nations that are signatories to Treaties 5 and 9, covering two-thirds of the land mass of Ontario.
The Far North Act, provincial Bill 191, is said to have been designed to protect at least 50 per cent of this territory north of the 51st parallel, and to arrange for First Nations to lead land use plans. While the government and environmentalists insist the land use plans would be constructed, led and finalized by the First Nations, NAN's leadership believes the Minister of Natural Resources will have the final say in development, overriding treaty rights.
As the 225,000 square kilometre space is set aside, First Nations expressed concern that they would be ceding territory outside of the protected land use area to development.
Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals passed the bill in a 46 to 26 vote on September 23, despite opposition from not only First Nations, the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democratic Party but seemingly unanimous opposition from those who live and do business in the North, including the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association, the adjacent Treaty Three Grand Council, the Ontario Prospectors Association, the Ontario Forestry Industries Association and the Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce.
“It is a disappointing day for all of us who spent tireless hours opposing Bill 191 as our opposition was obviously ignored,” said NAN Deputy Grand Chief Mike Metatawabin. “As we have stated time and time again, NAN First Nations and Tribal Councils do not and will not recognize this legislation on our homelands. We will continue to uphold our Aboriginal and treaty rights and jurisdiction over our land. The real fight is just beginning.”
From the government’s corner, the intention with the bill has always been straightforward: to establish a clear set of rules in order to develop the Ring Of Fire, an estimated 72-megatonne chromite deposit located 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. Minister of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry, Michael Gravelle, has called it “the largest economic development opportunity in Northern Ontario in a century.” More than 30,000 mining claims have been staked in the area in the past seven years alone.
A week before the passage of the Far North Act, the “unanimous” voice of Treaty 9 opposition to the bill was split when the two closest First Nations to the Ring of Fire, Marten Falls and Webequie First Nation, broke rank and signed Letters of Intent with Minister Gravelle. These Letters of Intent are the precursors to Memorandums of Understanding regarding land use planning. Marten Falls First Nation Chief Eli Moonias and Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse were promised skills training and finances to develop land use plans that address hunting and trapping sustainability.
“Whether the Far North plan gets moved forward, we’re still going to be using our land use plan,” Wabase said. “The main purpose of us signing with the government is to work with the government on our issues and that includes land use plans.”
A week after the act was passed, McGuinty was in Thunder Bay, announcing Christine Kaszycki as the Coordinator of the Ring of Fire. The Ontario Prospectors Association endorsed Kaszycki, who has been a leader of the revamped Mining Act and is former Assistant Deputy Minister in the the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry. However, NAN Grand Chief Stan Beardy responded angrily to her appointment.
“We should have been a part of the selection of the person to fill this critical position,” Beardy said. "We are disturbed that the Premier can express his willingness to create a true partnership and yet leaves us out of this critical process. We need to ensure that our objectives and our plans for anything in our territory are adequately represented."
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) president Monte Hummel was one of the architects of the bill and has taken offense to opposition allegations that the act is neocolonial.
According to Hummel, the 50 per cent figure in the Far North Act was born from the seed of the 2003 Boreal Forest Conservation Framework. The environmental movement wanted a place at the table but to get it, they needed to have a quantifiable demand. To meet that end, the University of Central Florida’s Reed Noss was brought in and produced the 50 per cent protection estimate to maintain biodiversity in the Boreal Forest. It was then adopted by the US-based Pew Foundation, which spends $2 million annually funding most of the widely recognized environmental organizations in North America, including the WWF.
“Pew has not called the tune but they’ve said, 'If you want to be funded by the Pew Foundation, you have to come forward with a plan and proposals that make sense, that provide for industrial interests, First Nations, environmentalists and governments, and are going to produce something,’” Hummel said.
The four-cornered model of bringing industry, First Nations, environmentalists and government to the table emerged from the conservation framework and became the basis for the Far North Act. The willingness to accept industrial development puts environmentalists at the table and in exchange they have a guarantee that 50 per cent of the Far North will go untouched.
“In the old view, you’d always get outgunned by big government,” Hummel recalled. “Over the years, we’ve gotten a lot stronger. Now, the game isn’t sitting on the margins and complaining. Now you engage. You move to the centre. Rather than letting all these mega-organizations make decisions, you go to the centre and be part of that process.”
But regardless of the bill’s controls from the beginning to the end of the land use planning, NAN believes the philosophy behind it overrides treaty rights to land ownership and so are vowing to fight its implementation. With First Nations being brought into a process in which industrial interests are assured, they are in no position to maintain exclusive stewardship over the land.
With NAN having rejected the development framework, Hummel warned they would be pushed back to the sidelines.
“You’d better think about the state you’re going to be in if this bill gets rescinded. You’re going to be in a de facto development run by development interests, possibly under a Conservative government which doesn’t have a history of championing First Nations issues and being twisted around by government departments with no planning framework or final say in land use plans," Hummel said.
"I can’t imagine this act being rescinded is going to leave [NAN Grand Chief] Stan Beardy or his communities in a better position. I appreciate they don’t agree with me and it’s their opinion that really counts but the stakes are very high and my caution based on 40 years experience is, before you kill this, you want to think long and hard about what’s going to replace it.”
Jon Thompson is an award-winning journalist and author in Northwestern Ontario. Jon's reckless, freelance adventuring pseudonym is selling his book at www.tommyjonsson.ca.
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.