During a recent teleconference call with associates in Central America, someone made a comment regarding the imprisonment of aboriginal leaders from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) and how this showed that the government of Canada will go to any length to advance its industrial agenda, even if it means the oppression of aboriginal people. This individual went on to compare the policies of our government to those of China imposed in Tibet. I found that I couldn’t really counter these comments because, although extravagant, they were partially factual.
On March 18, 2008, six KI band members, including the community’s Chief and Deputy Chief, were sentenced to six months in jail over an ongoing dispute between the community and Platinex, an exploration company conducting work in the region. This decision did not take place overnight. I have been closely following this case since 2005 when KI First Nation and other communities in the region first declared a moratorium on mining exploration in the Far North.
Around the same time as the moratorium was announced, Platinex made a deal with Inco to acquire a number of mine leases in the Big Trout Lake region, which is in the traditional territory of KI. Even though there was a moratorium in effect, Platinex carried on with its exploration work, claiming its rights under the Ontario Mining Act, which provided the permission required to carry out this exploration. KI community members and leadership began peaceful protests that escalated to the point where the workers had to leave the exploration site. This continued until Platinex launched a $10 billion lawsuit against the community and an injunction to prevent KI from interfering in the company’s exploration program. Initially, the court sided with the community, noting that the company knew the risks involved in carrying out work in the region and mandated both parties back to the negotiation table.
In October 2007, a court ruling was made that allowed Platinex to begin drilling in the territory without obstruction or protest. The community breached this ruling and, as a result, six band members were sentenced to six months in jail.
This case study exemplifies the need to review and revise the current Ontario Mining Act. The old days of the gold rushes when anybody could stake a land claim on Crown land, buy a license and begin mining are long gone. The provincial government’s lack of action in this matter has given the mining and exploration industry a black eye. Some organizations and communities have formally condemned the decision to incarcerate the band members. Platinex has also issued a statement affirming that they had not sought the incarceration of the KI members.
Today, we need to take into account the often forgotten treaty rights held by aboriginal communities. Now, more than ever before, we need to begin looking at these communities as long-term partners, right from the project development stage. The province of Manitoba is a shining example for Ontario. Its program, championed by the Minister of Science, Technology and Mines, requires every exploration or mining venture to identify if there is aboriginal interest in the region, and, if so, to work with the ministry to engage and accommodate the aboriginal communities.
Gladly, not every mining and First Nations negotiation goes as sour as this one did.
Juan Carlos Reyes is an Aboriginal consultant with efficiency.ca and the executive director of Learning Together. He is passionate about human rights and works tirelessly to help improve the lives of Canadian Aboriginal people.