At the same time that enviros are riveted by the jailing of natives protesting exploration on traditional lands, the Assembly of First Nations finds itself on rocky turf for a memorandum of understanding it signed with the mining industry calling for mutual cooperation on social and economic development. Talk about bad timing.
Supporters say the three-?page memorandum signed in early March between the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) and AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine is meant to rein in out-of-control mining exploration on unceded native territory. Other native leaders, however, have called for the tearing up of the three-page document.
While the pact doesn’t actually commit all AFN member communities – or all mining firms, for that matter – it does assume a relationship of goodwill that some native leaders say is undeserved.
Over the phone from Lindsay’s Central East Correctional Centre, three weeks into a six-?month sentence for opposing the Frontenac Ventures uranium project in Eastern Ontario, former Ardoch Algonquin chief Bob Lovelace says he’s not opposed to the idea of partnerships with mining industry.
“We’re not against development or mining per se, but communities need to have the right to say no,” says Lovelace.
Presently, the hated Ontario Mining Act, the focus of a broad campaign of opposition both native and non, grants prospectors and mining companies free entry and sub?surface exploration rights to Crown land and private property.
Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation Chief Donny Morris echoes Lovelace’s demand that any agreement with the mining industry respect the rights of communities that don’t want mining.
“You can’t just sign a memorandum of understanding and assume every First Nation is agreeable. Well, that’s not the case with my community. We’re not ready for that kind of development yet,” says Morris from Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, where he along with five KI band councillors and a KI employee have been jailed since early March for protesting Platinex’s platinum mining north of Thunder Bay.
Morris says AFN chief Fontaine has visited him twice in jail but has not committed to withdrawing from the agreement.
Fontaine says his org supports the rights of Aboriginal communities to refuse development, that the MOU does not constitute any kind of licence or authorization for activity.
“We’re involved in a national campaign to make First Nations poverty history, and part of this includes a corporate challenge,” he says. “This is about job creation, investment, procurement and partnerships. The MOU is designed to facilitate development where development is supportive of First Nations communities.”
Glenn Nolan, Chief of Missanabie Cree First Nation near Timmins, does not advocate people going to jail for the cause. He’s a second vice-?president of PDAC.
“We’re looking at developing this relationship with the Assembly of First Nations and hopefully Métis and Inuit groups so we can stop the process from ending up in this kind of situation,” says Nolan.
Nolan knows some First Nations are unhappy with the MOU, but he sees mining as a key generator of wealth that will enable self-?sufficiency and self-?determination.
“The mining industry is the single largest employer in Canada of Aboriginal people. To throw away the agreement is counterproductive.”
Nolan says he would like to see changes in the way the Mining Act is applied to traditional lands, but he is noncommittal about doing away with free entry and subsurface rights.
“Until somebody challenges this and the courts have a different opinion, then [we have to go with it],” he says. “There has to be a process that’s better than this. We need to work with First Nations communities, industry and government to come up with a workable solution.”
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant says a review of the hated act is under way and that First Nations and mining industry reps are participating.
The government, he says, has already committed to resource benefit-?sharing and plans to address environmental stewardship, community decision-?making and self-determination.
“With respect to issues around entry, consultation, consent, agreement and vetoes – these are precisely the things we are talking about,” he says.
Meanwhile, the KI Six and Ardoch’s Bob Lovelace have appealed their sentences – though not their convictions. Hearings are scheduled for May 28 in Toronto.
“We’re supportive of their release,” says Bryant, who holds out hope that there’s a way to mend the relationship between the community and Platinex, the platinum mining company that proposes exploration on KI land north of Thunder Bay.
KI’s Morris, however, insists that the government has to end the current dispute, pulling Platinex’s permits and compensating the company.
“We will decide if, when and where we will have mining development on our territory,” says Morris.
Lovelace, too, remains opposed to Frontenac Ventures’ uranium proposal. “If the drilling equipment comes back on the land, I’ll be beginning a hunger strike here,” he says.
For their part, both Frontenac and Platinex are adamant about continuing their mining efforts.
Frontenac president and CEO George White says the courts have decided that his company is the lawful title-holder of the lands in question and has the right to explore.
“The titles have been checked, and there are no claims registered by any Aboriginal group,” White says. “The Ardochs want to get into something they opted out of a long time ago. It’s a political manouevre. They have no legal status, and this is their way of trying to do an end run.”
Indeed, land claims talks between the Algonquins and the provincial and federal governments have been fraught with controversy. A split emerged in the community, and the group known as the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, of which Lovelace is a member, withdrew, saying they could not support the process.
KI, meanwhile, is a signatory to James Bay Treaty 9, and Platinex executive VP James Marrelli contends that the property it’s proposing to develop is on Crown land.
Marrelli says Platinex has shown good faith, negotiating for seven years with KI without drilling a single hole and proposing an agreement that he says a judge in a May 2007 hearing found “very fair and reasonable.”
Marrelli says free entry and subsurface exploration rights are essential if mining is to continue to be economically viable.
“If you take these away, you may find a lot of mining companies spending their money in provinces other than Ontario, or countries other than Canada.”
At the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says his organization is “not at all impressed with the mining industry in Ontario and with the Ontario government.
“If this were happening in British Columbia, in a matter of days there would be roadblocks all over the place.”
Gathering of mother earth protectors
Four days of ceremony, rallies, speakers and music to free imprisoned native leaders and repeal the Mining Act. May 26-?29, Queen’s Park. firstname.lastname@example.org.