the tories chose the friday be- fore the long Labour Day weekend to drop their latest environmental bomb.The news is not good for tree lovers. Gone is a 10,000-hectare maximum on clear-cuts that just a year ago eco-activists had thought they'd persuaded the Tories to adopt in their forest guidelines. The sky is now the limit.
Earlier this month, Chris Henschel, director of the Wildlands League's forest program, quit a negotiating group set up by the government when it became clear the Tories would be opting for larger clear-cuts.
Ironic, then, how just days before the Tories made their announcement, Wildlands League executive director Tim Gray told NOW he's hopeful the government will do the right eco thing in their latest mega land use plan, the Northern Boreal Initiative.
The plan will open a 37-million-hectare swath of untouched frontier north of the 50th parallel to logging, mining, hydro and road development.
It's being billed by the Partnership for Public Lands, a coalition that includes the Wildlands League, the World Wildlife Fund and the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, as an opportunity for "ecosystem sustainability."
But the last time the Tories sat down to map out a land use plan of such magnitude, a project known as Lands For Life, they ended up cutting First Nations out of the process -- not to mention opening huge tracts to development and allowing hunting in protected areas.
The Partnership was part of the negotiations back then, too. It takes credit for helping to protect 2.4 million hectares for new parks and conservation areas. Native groups, though, remember the Partnership as the group that sold their treaty rights down the river.
***The boreal forests north of 50 are unlike any others in the province. They've never been cut. The discovery of diamonds and gold and untouched stands of pine and spruce in the area has mining and forest companies alike clamouring. DeBeers, Abitibi, Weyerhauser -- they're all eager to get in. In the past, treaty rights haven't stopped development interests from finessing their way into native communities.
But it's different north of 50. None of the big logging companies that operate in the province hold logging licences in the area.
The sheer physical obstacles are daunting. There are no all-weather roads criss-crossing the landscape, making access to the area's mineral and lumber wealth nearly impossible.
The only way in or out is via small airstrips controlled by the 49 native communities who form part of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN).
They're not anxious to repeat the mistakes of their native brothers and sisters further south who've seen jobs promised to natives by industry giants fail to materialize. And those few jobs that are provided disappear once the last tree has been cut, the last nugget of precious metal mined.
NAN wants binding agreements with the province that include recognition not only of First Nation treaty rights, but stumpage fees and royalties in return for their natural resources.
"Before the North is opened for development," says NAN deputy grand chief Raymond Ferris, "the Nishnawbe Aski Nation will have to be dealt with on an equal footing."
A "concept document" released by the Ministry of Natural Resources on the Northern Boreal Initiative talks about developing a "community-based land use planning" approach with natives and promoting "community-led economic development initiatives."
The document also addresses the protection of traditional land uses and the establishment of "clear objectives for (ecosystem) sustainability."
Natural resources minister John Snobelen's communications adviser, Brett Kelly, says, "We know this is a very sensitive area. We understand we cannot go forward without them at the negotiating table."
But letters from both NAN deputy grand chief Ferris and grand chief Stan Beardy to Snobelen and other officials in the government tell a story of different government intentions.
The missives outline how the minister has sometimes failed to respond in writing to native concerns about the Northern Boreal Initiative. On other occasions, he's pulled out of scheduled meetings with NAN leaders at Queen's Park at the last minute.
The government's apparent reluctance to consult has prompted NAN to take an unprecedented step. The native group recently asked the U.S. department of commerce to investigate whether preferential treatment given resource companies at the expense of native treaty rights amounts to an unfair subsidy to those companies.
Richard Brooks of Earthroots wonders how serious the Tories are about consulting native groups.
He notes that, at the same time that the Tories have been talking a good game, they've also been encouraging resource companies to cut their own backroom deals with native communities -- to get through the back door what they've been unable to obtain through public processes.
"Very slithery," Brooks says.
Peter Quill, a First Nations leader in Pikangikum, near the Manitoba border, says natives will take to the bush to protect their resources if resource companies try to run roughshod over their claims. "We want to see our people benefit," he says.
Then there's the Partnership for Public Lands.
"We're hopeful that the Northern Boreal Initiative will be different from previous land use planning initiatives," says the Wildlands League's Tim Gray.
The clear-cut bomb the Tories dropped Friday hasn't done anything to change his optimism. "You take the good with the bad," he says.
Native groups, however, remember what happened the last time the Partnership lent its name to Tory plans for development up north.
First Nations ended up getting shut out of the Lands For Life process. And the Partnership cut its own forest accord with the captains of the forest industry behind the closed door of a motel room in Orillia. Natives are still stinging from that one.
"Nobody asked First Nations for our views," says NAN forest coordinator Terry Williams.
Gray says the outcome would have been far worse if the Partnership had not been part of the process.
NDP leader Howard Hampton, whose riding overlaps much of the land included in the Northern Boreal Initiative, says the Partnership "sold natives out. First Nations have no trust in the Partnership.
"I think, after Lands For Life, there was some appreciation among environmentalists who took part that they'd missed the boat in terms of aboriginal people."***
The Partnership has spent the better part of the last year working to rebuild strained relations with native communities north of 50.Anna Baggio, a campaigner with the Wildlands League, has been talking to the various land use committees set up by native communities to respond to the Northern Boreal Initiative. There have been feel-good canoe trips into the interior with local trappers, too.
The response to the Wildlands League's latest northern foray, Baggio says over the phone from the Moose Cree reserve, has been generally positive. "We both want to see decisions made for the land encompass all values, not just economic," she says.
Work is also progressing on a memo of understanding between the Partnership and native groups so the kind of conflict that erupted over Lands For Life can be avoided. But what will happen if the Tories decide to change the rules of the game in midstream, as they did during Lands For Life? Or when forest companies that are running out of wood to feed their sawmills in the south start putting more pressure on the Tories to act? Or if individual native communities decide to cut ecologically unsound mega-deals?
It's hard to imagine the Partnership resorting to radical tactics. But Earthroots is not ruling anything out.
"We're talking about the largest intact wilderness in Ontario," says Earthroots's Brooks. "We can't leave it up to government to make the right decisions."
There is a lot at stake for native communities. The carrot that some resource companies are dangling may prove to hard to resist. At the same time, it's feared that the clear-cuts would destroy the livelihood of the pine marten trappers and hunters who rely on the region for income.
Says NAN forest coordinator Williams, "We're in a Catch-22."
The federal government has now jumped into this complicated equation by budgeting $100 million to build all-weather roads and set up an office in the area.
Hampton says that once all-weather roads are built, "any negotiating power the natives have will be taken away."
He says any deal arrived at by natives, the province and the resource industry must be written in iron-clad language. "Otherwise, you can be sure companies will find a way around it."