Ont. native leaders to be sentenced in long-standing dispute with miner

 

Ont. native leaders to be sentenced in long-standing dispute with miner

 

BY MARIA BABBAGE

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

 

TORONTO _ A group of aboriginal leaders from a remote northwestern Ontario community will learn Monday whether they will be sent to jail over a long-standing dispute concerning drilling rights in a First Nations territory.

 

Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse and members of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation are expected to gather at a Thunder Bay courtroom to show their support for the group, who oppose junior miner Platinex Inc.'s (TSXV:PTX) drilling for minerals at Big Trout Lake, Ont. _ territory the band claims as its own.

 

Monday's sentencing follows a failed attempt by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant to resolve the dispute nearly two weeks ago.

 

Bryant's proposed resolution, which he described as a template for other companies seeking to reap the north's rich natural resources, was rejected a day later by the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, who said the plan didn't adequately address its dispute with Platinex.

 

Chief Donny Morris and other band councillors say they're prepared to go to jail for their cause, after being found in contempt of court last December for ignoring an injunction that allows exploratory drilling for minerals on what they consider traditional lands.

 

An aboriginal protester involved in a similar land claims dispute in eastern Ontario was sent to jail last month for interfering in a uranium mining company's claim near Sharbot Lake, about 80 kilometres north of Kingston.

 

Robert Lovelace, a spokesman for the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, was sentenced to six months in jail and fined $25,000, along with co-chief Paula Sherman, who was spared jail time but fined $15,000.

 

Frontenac Ventures won a court injunction last October to prevent aboriginals from occupying the site used for uranium exploration, a practice the Ardoch Algonquin oppose due to concerns about the harmful impact it may have on the environment and people's health.

 

Bryant had hoped to end such disputes with his proposal, which he said laid out the responsibilities of the company to consult with First Nations every step of the way and allow them to benefit from the development.

 

But Bryant's plan offered no resolution to the Platinex dispute, only a general statement of principles concerning future resource development in their territory, band leaders said.

 

“He doesn't really want to end (the dispute), from our perspective,'' said Samuel McKay, a band spokesman who is among the group to be sentenced Monday.

 

“If he really wanted to end it, he would work with the ministries that are responsible and the premier to reconcile the mistakes they've made and start fresh in dealing with this properly. … He's just beating around the bush.''

 

Bryant's unilateral approach to resolving such disputes is not going to satisfy native groups, said NDP Leader Howard Hampton.

 

“This latest episode where the minister _ without any consultation with the First Nation _ flies up to Thunder Bay and says, `I unilaterally have the solution,' just adds insult to injury in terms of the First Nation,'' he said.

 

Many aboriginal groups aren't against mining in principle, but they want to be consulted before development is permitted on their lands, which the province has neglected to do in the Platinex dispute, Hampton added.

 

The fight has dragged out for nearly a decade and the legal bills have drained the band's budget, which McKay said resulted in the band cancelling a program that would have provided new housing to thousands of residents.

 

Platinex sued the band for $10 billion in April 2006, but reduced the amount of damages it was seeking to $10 million last month.

 

The Ontario government is trying to help “facilitate a resolution'' to the legal dispute and has agreed to several requests on both sides, Bryant said in a statement last week.

 

“We have offered to pay at least over $100,000 to KI for their legal fees, and secured numerous consessions from Platinex, who offer KI training, guaranteed jobs and a share in any mining revenue, plus restrictions on when and how any exploration takes place,'' Bryant said.

 

“I will continue to fight for a resolution, as KI residents have asked me to not give up trying.''

 

Greg Crone, a government spokesman, said Sunday evening that McKay wasn't present at the most recent meeting between the two sides.

 

And Crone added that Bryant has made several return visits to KI to try and work out a resolution.

 

“There is a solution there if someone wants to reach out and grab it.''

 

NAN Grand Chief Stan Beardy, whose organization represents 49 First Nation communities, urged Premier Dalton McGuinty to find a “better solution''.

 

“We believe that taking them to the courts and considering fining and incarcerating them for peacefully addressing their rights, sacred responsibilities and interests is wrong and harmful to current and future relationships between First Nations and Ontario,'' Beardy wrote in a letter last week.

 

The situation hasn't improved because the Liberals are still dragging their heels in defining what it means to consult with aboriginal groups over mining rights, said Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory.

 

“Right now, there's an issue where the aboriginal people would say that consultation mandated by the courts is one thing, and the government of the day would say it's something else,'' he said.

 

“I think they have an obligation to set out what consultation means, who it's with, how long it lasts, so that they can say they're doing it properly and have some framework everybody understands and can do business under.''

 

“Future mining development _ and the resulting economic gains for a region hard-hit by job losses in the manufacturing sector _ is being jeopardized by the Liberals' reluctance to update its antiquated mining legislation, Hampton said.

 

“The McGuinty government's failure on this file, its failure to work in a positive, constructive way with First Nations in the north has resulted in a scenario where very little mining activity is likely to take place in the near future,'' he said.