Women begin `wave fast’ to protest jailing of natives in mining fight

 

Women begin `wave fast' to protest jailing of natives in mining fight

 

BY SUE BAILEY

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

 

OTTAWA _ A group of native women in northern Ontario was to stop eating for 24 hours in hopes of launching a “wave fast'' across Canada to support a great grandmother jailed in a mining dispute.

 

Eight members of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation women's council planned to fast starting Tuesday night in Thunder Bay for Cecilia Begg. She's serving a six-month jail term for blocking exploration on her traditional land 600 kilometres northwest of the city.

 

The council hopes other human rights, environmental and women's groups will pick up the fast every 24 hours from coast to coast.

 

Spokeswoman Jackie Fletcher never thought it would come to this.

 

“It's our land,'' she said in an interview. “And people come in on the land and do whatever they do. You go to court to try and defend (against) that, and you're thrown in jail. We're working within systems that are not ours, and don't know _ and don't want to know _ what our values are.''

 

Begg is “wrongly confined for sticking up for community,'' Fletcher said. “Anybody would stick up for their community in the mainstream, and I don't see them getting put in jail for that.''

 

Begg, along with five other leaders of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation, also known as Big Trout Lake, were sentenced last month. They were each handed six-month jail terms for breaching an order that allowed junior mining company Platinex Inc. to drill unobstructed.

 

Seeing the leaders incarcerated sent shock waves throughout northern First Nations as the Ontario government tries to mediate.

 

The protracted dispute between the isolated fly-in reserve and Platinex highlights Ontario's struggle to adapt to new legal realities. The province's 135-year-old Mining Act allows prospectors to stake claims on Crown land without first having to buy it.

 

Platinex contends that deep under those age-old hunting grounds lies one of the largest platinum deposits in North America. Recent court judgments, however, say First Nations must be consulted on land use and benefits before drilling begins.

 

Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called the six-month jail terms “very harsh and unfair. … 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.''

 

The sentences also drew fire from opposition politicians, human-rights groups and environmental activists. Even Ontario Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant agreed the group should never have been jailed.

 

Progressive mining companies strike mutually beneficial deals with First Nations that create jobs and revenue, he said last month. “The company got off to a terrible start. … This is not the way it's supposed to happen.''

 

The KI First Nation leaders aren't against development, Fontaine has stressed.

 

Rather, they're against how Ontario flouted its duty to consult the First Nation by issuing drilling permits without proper input, he said.

 

Other northern communities are watching closely to see what happens next, says New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, whose Timmins-James Bay riding includes several First Nations.

 

“I'm sickened by what's happened at KI,'' he said of the jail terms issued. “One of the fundamental principles enunciated in the courts over and over is the obligation to consult fairly.

 

“How can a community say they've been consulted when their people are jailed?''