Aborginal affairs minister ‘won’t give up’ after chief jailed over mining dispute

 

Aborginal affairs minister 'won't give up' after chief jailed over mining dispute

 

BY JIM KELLY

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

 

THUNDER BAY, Ont. _ The Ontario government won't give up trying to find common ground between an exploration company and a remote northern Ontario First Nation despite the sentencing of an aboriginal chief and five other members to jail on contempt of court charges, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant said Monday.

 

The six members of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation _ including Chief Donny Morris and Deputy Chief Jack MacKay _ were sentenced to six months in jail after ignoring an injuction which allowed Platinex to start drilling on traditional aboriginal territory.

 

The sentences come two weeks after Bryant tried _ and failed _ to resolve the dispute. But Bryant said he's not giving up trying to negotiate an agreement.

 

“I certainly feel as if the government did its best to avoid incarceration,'' said Bryant, adding he knew the six activists were resigned to go to jail.

 

“But I don't think we should be afraid to insert ourselves to try and facilitate something simply because the result might not be exactly what we want. There is no way to succeed without trying. I tried and I'm going to keep on trying.''

 

Last December, Superior Court Justice Patrick Smith found the six members of the KI First Nation in contempt of a court order dated Oct. 25, 2007.

 

That order had allowed Platinex, a junior exploration company, to proceed with the first phase of its drilling project and prevented KI members from impeding, interfering or obstructing company access to the exploration property near Big Trout Lake, which is not on the KI reserve but is on their traditional lands.

 

“KI has repeatedly and publicly stated its defiance of the order of this court and has stated that it will continue to disobey any court orders allowing Platinex or its representatives to enter onto the property,'' Smith said in his reasons for sentencing.

 

“To allow a breach of an order of this court to occur with impunity by one sector of society will inevitably lead to a breach by others or to the belief that the law is unjustly partial to those who have the audacity or persistence to flout it.

 

“If two systems of law are allowed to exist _ one for the aboriginals _ the rule of law will disappear and be replaced by chaos. The public will lose respect for, and confidence in, our courts and judicial system.''

 

Councillors Cecilia Begg, Darryl Sainnawap, Samuel McKay, Enus McKay and Evelyn Quequish and committee member Bruce Sakakeep were the others receiving jail terms.

 

Smith imposed suspended sentences on Quequish and Enus McKay, who gave an undertaking to the court that they will obey future orders of the court.

 

The judge said a jail term was the only appropriate penalty, and he cited several precedent cases, including one last month involving Ardoch Algonquin First Nation Co-chief Robert Lovelace, who received a six-month jail term and a fine.

 

Smith said he did not issue fines Monday because those jailed “lack the ability'' to pay.

 

Nishnawbe Grand Chief Stan Beardy said the sentencing is a message that the Ontario government is getting tough on First Nations.

 

“The McGuinty government got labelled weak in dealing with Caledonia, and now they say, `We're not weak and we'll show you by throwing these Indians in jail,''' Beardy said prior to the sentencing.

 

“What is happening here is we've been criminalized for practising our way of living. The government wants to make an example of us.

 

“What's being done is, once more, we're being moved out of the way, our valuable resources are being exploited and everybody is benefiting except us.''

 

NDP Leader Howard Hampton called the jail sentence a “travesty.'' The chief and council of the First Nation shouldn't be going to jail because the province failed to live up to its constitutional responsibility, he said.

 

“If First Nation leaders are going to be sent to jail then those two ministers should be tendering their resignations,'' said Hampton, referring to Bryant and Northern Development Minister Michael Gravelle.

 

KI lawyer Chris Reid said the provincial government has the power to negotiate land-use planning and to consult with First Nations before approving mineral exploration on their lands.

 

“They simply refused to do that,'' Reid said.

 

“They've acted like the only interests that matter in Ontario are those of the mining companies, and everything else has to get out of the way.

 

“This whole thing is being driven by greed _ the greed of a few individuals in the mining industry. And the government of Ontario appears to be right in their pockets.''

 

Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse said jailing aboriginals who are fighting for their constitutional rights is not the answer.

 

“It's sad that the court system is where these decisions about our rights are being dealt with,'' he said.

 

“The court system is the least appropriate place to deal with complex reconciliation issues.''

 

Platinex lawyer Neil Smitheman also said he was saddened the dispute had to be resolved in court.

 

“We're hopeful and have been hopeful for the longest time that Platinex and KI could get past their differences and work together for the benefit of the community and company,'' he said.

 

A Platinex spokeswoman said the company will be making a statement later this week on the court decision.