Jailing of aboriginal leaders may set back resolution to mining dispute: Fontaine

 

Jailing of aboriginal leaders may set back resolution to mining dispute: Fontaine

 

BY TOBI COHEN

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

 

TORONTO _ The incarceration of six Northern Ontario aboriginal leaders as part of a dispute with an exploration company poses a serious impediment to any fair resolution, Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine said Friday following a jailhouse visit.

 

Still, Fontaine said he was “encouraged'' by a recent meeting with Ontario Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant who seemed committed to moving forward on a number of issues.

 

“There's three important matters that the province has committed itself to,'' Fontaine said, noting they include resource revenue sharing with First Nations, adhering to their duty to consult and accommodate on matters that relate to aboriginal land and moving forward with an interim plan.

 

“I understand the province is prepared and willing to begin immediate discussions on these issues.''

 

Fontaine affirmed the leaders from the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation near Thunder Bay are not opposed to development.

 

What the group does oppose is the way in which the deal was managed by both the Ontario government and the mining company, Platinex Inc., he said.

 

“Platinex because they ignored the rights and interests of this community's traditional lands and the provincial government's decision to issue the permit to allow exploration to take place without regard to their legal duty to consultation and accommodation,'' he said.

 

“They're very determined to stand firm on this very principled position they've taken to say no to development at this stage.''

 

The six leaders, which include Chief Donny Morris and Deputy Chief Jack MacKay, were each handed a six month jail sentence earlier this month for breaching an order that allowed Platinex to begin drilling on their traditional lands unobstructed.

 

While two others received suspended sentences after agreeing to obey future court orders, Fontaine said even grandmother of seven Cecilia Begg seemed quite prepared to serve her sentence rather than back down.

 

“They believe their position is right and of course we agree with them,'' he said, noting they are exploring the possibility of an appeal,'' he said.

 

“We've had this very, very unfortunate action on the part of the courts for a judge to hand down this very harsh, unfair sentence and what this sentence is telling us is that economic interest will trump the rights of indigenous peoples every time.''

 

“That's just the wrong, wrong message that needs to be conveyed,'' he added.

 

In an interview with the CBC Thursday, Bryant said he agrees with Fontaine that the group should never have been sent to jail.

 

Most progressive mining companies, he said, have entered into agreements with First Nations that have resulted in jobs, revenue and an increased standard of living.

 

“I have been up to KI three times in the last few months… to try and broker something,'' he told the CBC.

 

“The company got off to a terrible start… This is not the way it's supposed to happen.''

 

Admitting some First Nations communities have stopped working with the government in protest, Bryant said it's important to “keep working towards finding a resolution.''