Minister mediating in dispute between mining company and Ont. First Nation

 

Minister mediating in dispute between mining company and Ont. First Nation

 

BY CHINTA PUXLEY

(c) 2008 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

 

TORONTO _ A proposed resolution to a lengthy dispute over drilling rights in traditional aboriginal territory could set a precedent for companies to consult and share wealth with Ontario's First Nations, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant said Tuesday.

 

In an attempt to negotiate an end to the battle between Platinex mining company and a remote northern aboriginal community, Bryant said the two sides have a chance to make history by creating a template that other companies will follow to unlock the economic potential of Ontario's north by exploiting its natural resources.

 

The chief and other councillors of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation say they're prepared to go to jail after they were found in contempt of court for ignoring an injunction that allows exploratory drilling on what they consider traditional lands.

 

Bryant told The Canadian Press that he's come up with a memorandum of understanding which lays out the responsibilities of the company to consult with the KI First Nation every step of the way and allow them to benefit from the resulting economic development.

 

“My hope is that KI will agree to this . . . and that other First Nations will see this as an historic proclamation that will guide the protection of the environment and northern development for many years to come,'' Bryant said in an interview after leaving Thunder Bay, en route to the First Nation.

 

“It's my hope that we can avoid the confrontation . . . and that the community can get on with a partnership that may produce significant wealth and jobs for this community at the same time as creating an historic and important precedent.''

 

The dispute over drilling rights has lasted years and drained the band's budget fighting the mining company in court. The First Nation argues Platinex was given clearance to survey land on the community's traditional territory without any consultations, which they say was a violation of their rights.

 

The province has argued mining exploration should continue in northern Ontario and aboriginal communities can benefit from that development.

 

It's in the best interests of everyone for companies to unlock the economic potential of the north while providing much-needed jobs to aboriginal communities, Bryant said.

 

Bryant's words came on the same day that Canada's First Nations and the country's mineral prospectors signed a memorandum of understanding committing themselves to greater co-operation and mutual understanding.

 

Following an elder-led traditional pipe-smoking ceremony in Toronto were the document was signed, Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine said Bryant's mediation efforts were a “very important development'' but warned that native communities must be fully involved in the process.

 

“If it is something that the community wants and has asked for, then it's good,'' Fontaine said.

 

“If it's going to be imposed on a community or First Nations, then it's not going to work.''

 

Councillor Samuel McKay, who speaks for the KI First Nation, said they're not interested in negotiating with Platinex until the province deals with its outstanding land claim which has been languishing for almost a decade.

 

The community's leaders are resigned to the idea of going to jail to fight the drilling if that's what it takes, he said.

 

“We're not going to give up just because we are thrown in jail. This is our life, this is our land that we're fighting for,'' he said. “We want it to be done properly.''

 

The province could help avoid similar disputes in the future by amending the mining act to force companies to consult, protect the environment and share profits with First Nations, he added.

 

“We're not against development,'' McKay said. “But we want to be treated properly, we want to be consulted properly. That hasn't been done.''

 

Grand Chief Stan Beardy, of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation which includes the KI First Nation, said aboriginal communities are tired of seeing companies come into their traditional lands and leave with piles of cash.

 

Northern Ontario has tremendous economic possibilities but the province needs to set out clear rules for drilling permits and mining companies, he said.

 

“If this situation cannot be diffused, it will create a lot of uncertainty and it will scare investors away,'' Beardy said. “We're appealing to the Ontario government to deal with this in a respectful manner so that we can all live in prosperity.''

 

NDP Leader Howard Hampton said Bryant's last-ditch trip up north won't make up for years of negligence. If the Liberals are serious about resolving the situation, Hampton said they would start by paying the legal costs of the KI First Nation.

 

The aboriginal community should never have had to bankrupt itself in court because the province didn't fulfil its constitutional obligation to consult before issuing drilling permits, he said.

 

“It is the McGuinty government that has really been the source of this problem,'' Hampton said. “Trying to portray themselves as the fixers of the problem is going to lead to more cynicism.''