Grand Chief Stan Beardy (left) talks with Chiefs of Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse at a rainy protest at Queen’s Park in Toronto. Photo:Courtesy Chiefs of Ontario
The Ontario government’s Far North Act (Bill 191) passed third reading in the provincial legislature today, despite strong opposition from aboriginal groups who live in the region where the bill proposes to create a 225,000 sq. kilometre protected area.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Deputy Grand Chief Mike Metatawabin issued a statement yesterday vowing that aboriginal people living in the region will continue their opposition to the bill. “"If Bill 191 passes Third Reading, NAN will not recognize it," said Metatawabin. "We will not compromise our rights as Treaty people. The law can be passed by the Province of Ontario, but this does not promise industry free access to our lands."
And he repeated a previous warning that the bill’s passage could lead to “uncertainty and unrest.” Metatawabin added that “NAN First Nations have not been properly consulted on Bill 191, despite the province of Ontario’s continued attempts to state otherwise. As per unanimous resolutions passed by the NAN Chiefs-in-Assembly, the legislation will be opposed by any and all means necessary.”
"This is not what we want, but given the province of Ontario and the premier’s refusal to honor their commitments to the people of NAN, we have no other choice," said NAN Deputy Grand Chief Mike Metatawabin. "First Nations in the Far North have voiced their concerns over and over again regarding this bill, and yet the Premier of Ontario remains unmoved. If there is conflict, it will be up to the province to answer as to why. This government has been given ample opportunity to work with us, but chooses otherwise."
The Ontario government’s view of bill is very different. According to Linda Jeffrey, minister of natural resources: “Third reading of Bill 191 is the beginning of a new journey working with the First Nations. Our government remains committed to supporting investment and development in the Far North in co-operation with First Nations – creating new jobs and exciting long-term economic prospects.”
But NAN First Nations argue that their people have not been adequately consulted and accommodated. Treaties require that “all development and protection decisions within NAN territory require the free, prior and informed consent of NAN First Nations,” obligations that NAN argues the government has not respected.
Last week, about 60 protesters, many of whom came from northern communities by bus, brought their concerns to a protest at the Ontario legislature. Representatives from the Anglican Church of Canada, including National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, indigenous ministries co-ordinator Donna Bomberry and Bishop Lydia Mamakwa attended the rally. They brought a letter to Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aksi Nation, Stan Beardy, from the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. Archbishop Fred Hiltz appealed in solidarity with NAN for the rights of indigenous peoples to be respected and the Canadian constitution to be honoured. He also asked the premier and legislators to keep their promises and renew commitment to consultation.
“We’re primarily trying to walk with the communities and the people of this Treaty Nine area, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation,” said Bishop MacDonald.”We are concerned, as they are, that the government would have consultation with them on environmental issues and the use of their lands and other things, and we really feel that full and prior consent needs to be explicitly stated.” He added that those opposed to the bill have a number of concerns.”They are concerned and anxious to have economic development, but they are also hoping to see their lands used in a sustainable way and that doesn’t provide economic resources in a way that denies them their traditional lifestyle and their traditional relationship with the land.”
Bishop MacDonald said the church has a key role to play that has historical roots. “Even at the beginning in the treaty-making period, the church was part of the process and promised its ongoing co-operation and support to make sure that these agreements between the government and the First Nations were adhered to in an honourable way and in a way that was true to the agreement and would provide a good future for all parties. So this is simply doing what the church promised to do a long time ago, and it’s just continuing to walk in that.”