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KI members jailed for protecting their land









First Nations leaders in Northern Ontario were sentenced to jail after refusing to back down in their fight for rights to their traditional lands.
On March 17, Ontario Superior Court Judge Patrick Smith sentenced Chief Donny Morris and other council members of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation - located about 1,000 kilometres north of Thunder Bay - each to six months in jail for contempt of court.
The leaders had ignored a court order to stay away from an area near Big Trout Lake that they claim is traditionally theirs, and into which the government recently allowed junior mining company Platinex to begin exploration.
In the days following the sentencing, leaders across the country expressed outrage. Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton was particularly vocal, as he called on Ontario's Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant to resign.
"The far north of Ontario probably has some of the best unexplored mineral potential in the whole world because there was a moratorium placed on further mineral development north of the 51st parallel in the mid-'70s," he explained, noting there have only been two exceptions.
The population north of the 51st is largely represented by First Nations and many of those are in Bryant's constituency, he said.
"Given the price of minerals, international mining companies are chomping at the bit to get into the far north of Ontario," he said. "First Nations are not opposed to mining, but First Nations insist on an agreement with the Ontario government, very similar to the agreement that the Cree in Northern Quebec have with the Quebec government.
"That is an agreement that First Nations will have a say in environmental protection; that First Nations will have a say in a co-operative and consultative basis over land use planning; that there will be revenue sharing; that there will be a strategy for education, training and business development for First Nations."
Basically, the First Nations want overarching ground rules that all have to play by, and a guarantee in advance of how their share in mining deals will work.
"And representatives of First Nations have been very consistent over the last six years in saying, 'We're not prepared to allow helter-skelter, one mining company here, one mining company there - we want the government of Ontario at the table and we want legislation and an agreement that establishes the ground rules," Hampton said.
How have things got to the point where First Nations leaders are in jail, asks Windspeaker? The background, Hampton explained, is that Ontario for many years has accepted the idea that First Nations have traditional lands on which they were active.
On the land in question, KI has a land claim it wants addressed.
Platinex has tried to begin operations within that traditional territory after the government of Ontario gave the firm a permit without having consulted KI.
When KI stood in opposition of the Platinex operations, the company sued the First Nation for billions of dollars, Hampton said. According to its chief, KI has gone bankrupt because of the $500,000 they say they have paid in legal fees defending that lawsuit.
Bryant said an offer from the provincial government is still on the table - the province would pay $200,000 to KI for their legal fees and Platinex would make some concessions.
But overall, the government seemed to be missing in action, Hampton said.
The provincial government has failed to meet its legal and constitutional obligations to meaningfully consult with the First Nation, added Connie Kidd of Canadians for Aboriginal Rights, a national network of non-Aboriginal supporters of rights of Indigenous people.
"I think our governments, both of them, do a very good job of confusing issues to make it very difficult for people to sort out what's right and what's wrong," she said. "And the reason that they do that, frankly, in my opinion and the opinion of a lot of lawyers, is because the governments are not doing what they should be doing. And they are, in the case of province at least, engaging in illegal evasions - they're evading the law."
"I think, in part, the government wants to see mining activity move ahead as quickly as possible and thinks that a series of one-off agreements will give them something to announce this month, next month. So I think part of it is a rush," Hampton added.
"I think part of it is a desire to avoid giving northern First Nations some control over what happens north of the 51st parallel. We're talking about billions of dollars of mining potential here. And, unfortunately, greed exists in our society and, unfortunately, I think that's part of this equation, too."
Hampton thinks there is still a opportunity in northern Ontario to accomplish "something positive, something long-lasting, and something very important for First Nations," he said.
"First Nations have got together, have thought about this, have had very thorough discussions and are quite open to working with governments and the mining industry. But they're not prepared to accept back-door, lowest-common-denominator deals, where someone else gets all the economic benefit and First Nations are left with a few token jobs and then left to deal with the environmental issue afterwards. And I think that's what is really at stake here."
Despite having some of its leaders behind bars, KI isn't backing down.
On March 20, Thunder Bay's Source newspaper reported that KI members are "fighting back" by not allowing mining companies, and federal and provincial MPs, on KI lands. Its leaders are also calling for the Assembly of First Nations to sever ties with the mining industry and for Ontario to establish a joint panel on mining with First Nation lands.