Musicians, authors and actors call for release of jailed aboriginal leaders

 

Musicians, authors and actors call for release of jailed aboriginal leaders

 

BY CHINTA PUXLEY

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

 

TORONTO _ Author Margaret Atwood, actor Cathy Jones and musician Sarah Harmer are among 20 prominent Canadians calling on Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to immediately free seven jailed aboriginal leaders and stop controversial mineral exploration across the province.

 

In a letter being sent to McGuinty on Tuesday, the group of activists _ which also includes former UN ambassador Stephen Lewis _ pleads the case of jailed aboriginals trying to stop mining in their traditional northern territory, and says mining shouldn't take precedence over people's homes and health.

 

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 last December after ignoring an injunction allowing Platinex to start drilling on traditional aboriginal territory 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.

 

Retired Algonquin chief Bob Lovelace is also serving six months in jail for his role in opposing a uranium project in eastern Ontario.

 

“We support the right of a community to say NO to mineral exploration and mining projects that threaten the health of people and ecosystems in Ontario,'' states the letter, which also notes a grandmother will spend her 60th birthday behind bars for protesting mineral exploration on her traditional land.

 

“These are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandfathers and grandmothers.''

 

McGuinty must immediately free the jailed leaders and stop mineral exploration both in northern and eastern Ontario, the letter states.

 

The governing Liberals also need to overhaul the 100-year-old Mining Act to ensure this doesn't happen again, the group added. Ontario's current “free entry'' system allows companies to come into people's backyards to look for minerals without permission with little recourse for anyone who wants to stop it, they said.

 

Instead, the group said mining companies should only be granted exploration permits after proper environmental assessments and real consultation with aboriginal communities.

 

This will ensure “the health of the people of Ontario and its vital ecosystems will be protected,'' said the letter, obtained by The Canadian Press.

 

Angus McKay, one of the few remaining councillors left at the KI band office, said the group is grateful for all the support it has received across the country. There is more at stake than the freedom of the six jailed leaders, he said.

 

“This issue touches every native band,'' McKay said. “It's far-reaching. It's not just about mining. It's not just about Platinex. It's also about human rights.''

 

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant said the province is trying to expedite the appeal of the jailed KI leaders. The Liberals don't believe the aboriginals should be jailed because of their “clash'' over the use of land, he said.

 

The Liberals are also committed to overhauling the Mining Act _ with the help of aboriginal communities _ so aboriginals are properly consulted in the future, he added.

 

“We're in agreement with the gist of the message in the letter,'' Bryant said.

 

“The message is, do everything you can to prevent the jailing of chief and council, and with respect to those who are incarcerated, do everything you can to get them out. Our answer is agreed and agreed. … Incarceration should not have been ordered.''

 

New Democrat Gilles Bisson said if the Liberals agree with the letter's message, they should move immediately to amend the Mining Act and commit to a system of revenue sharing. Aboriginal communities aren't opposed to all development, he said.

 

They just want to be consulted and share in the resulting wealth, he said.

 

“If we don't resolve … how we're going to do development on First Nations territory, it's going to become not just a political problem for the government, it's going to become an economic development problem for Ontario overall,'' Bisson said.