Canada’s Federal Government Making a Mess of Aboriginal Land Claims and Mining Issues – Gregory Reynolds

Gregory Reynolds - Timmins ColumnistThere is a belief among mining people that the land disputes making news almost daily are best left to the two parties directly concerned – provincial governments and Aboriginal groups.

The truth is that two of Canada’s primary industries are threatened by the failure to tackle land claims in a meaningful way.

Mining and forestry have remained on the sidelines while negotiations become pension funds for lawyers and job protection insurance for civil servants.

There is a third party that not only should be at every negotiating table but should be actively involved. That is Canada’s federal government.

More and more native bands are saying they do not want trees cut or mineral exploration on their traditional lands until outstanding claims are settled.

As well, they want a say in the decision-making process and a share in any wealth generated. Ottawa and provincial governments receive billions of dollars annually in tax revenues, directly from the companies and indirectly from the workers in mining and forestry.

Then there are the income taxes from supply and services jobs dependent on those two industries. Ontario has repeatedly called on Ottawa to get involved, rejecting claims that the senior government is committed to finding solutions as platitudes.

Prime Minister Harper had a golden opportunity when he offered an apology on June 11 to Aboriginals for the shameful treatment of their children in residential schools for over 100 years.

He could have turned from looking backward to looking forward and offered hope to First Nations, Inuit and Metis.

Instead he offered the usual pabulum, a dream of “forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.”

Meanwhile, Natural Resources Canada has a mining information kit for Aboriginal communities. Updated as of April 17, 2008 a booklet stated: “Any area of Crown land can be staked, including land traditionally used by Aboriginal people and communities. Crown land is land owned by all Canadians and that is administered and regulated by government (surface and mineral rights). Anyone can purchase a prospector’s licence and prospect on Crown Land. “This is known as ‘free entry’.” End quote.

Is anyone aware in that federal department that free entry is strongly opposed by native groups and some non-natives?

In this province, the Ontario Mining Act (with similar wording as to exploration) has served us well for over 100 years but times change.

 Make Changes

There is no doubt that Queen’s Park is going to make changes to the act. The mining industry must come off the sidelines and become a part of the solution, because there will be a solution.

The mining act has become a flash point in this situation, just as long-term forestry agreements that tie up almost all the useable timber are unacceptable today.

There are more than 1,300 land claims in Canada. In Ontario many of the news claims involve land within municipal boundaries. Some bands are claiming the right to administer these lands.

There have been just a few isolated incidents to date but when one considers them inside the big picture, they are a forewarning of events to come.

There was the jailing of seven Ontario native leaders for blocking efforts by two mining companies to conduct diamond drilling on legally staked but disputed land. There is the illegal occupancy of a housing subdivision in Caledonia with attendant violence and vandalism.

Talks have dragged on for two years but have reached no conclusion. The constant addition of more items to the agenda has widened the scope of the negotiations.

There is a claim of the Whitefish Lake Band members to the bulk of the nickel bodies in Sudbury and area, accompanied by a $550 billion lawsuit.

Where will it all end? No one knows but the foot-dragging that worked so well for the federal and provincial governments is dead as a tactic.

New claims using blockages and land occupancy involve, and hurt, municipal governments. There have been native blockages of construction sites in Brantford to which city council responded with a lawsuit claiming $110 million. Only 12 per cent of Ontario is privately owned, meaning the remainder is Crown land subject to land claims.

There were 230 claims in 2007 arising from violations of treaties in Ontario but Aboriginal groups are working on many more. While the original treaties are a federal matter, Ontario usually becomes part of a land claim because it controls all Crown land within its borders.

The government says: “Existing Crown uses are taken into consideration during negotiations. Potential impacts on existing uses are minimized as much as possible. For example, Crown land leases, easements, mining claims, timber allocations and other licences and permits will not be revoked during their term.”

Since the Ontario Mining Act allows individuals and companies to stake almost anywhere in the province, one can see why Aboriginal groups have been calling for drastic changes to the act. Both provincial and federal governments have been dragging their feet on this issue for over 120 years.

The claim for most of the mineral rich and highly developed Sudbury mining area opened a new page in Aboriginal-government relations. It is worth taking a close look at it.

The Whitefish band stated the reason for the claim is a breach in the terms outlined in the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850. The band is claiming the land it now occupies is nearly five times smaller than the agreed upon boundaries outlined in the treaty.

The total amount of compensation accounts for this loss of land and the profits gained through the extraction of natural resources and tourism revenues.

The Reservation Land is described in the Treaty as “a tract of land now occupied by Atikameksheng Anishnaebek, and contained between two rivers called Whitefish River and Wanabitaseke seven miles inland.”

That pushes the boundaries of the current reserve around almost all of Greater Sudbury up to Wanapitei Lake and past Dowling, halfway between Nairn and Espanola and cutting off half of Killarney Provincial Park to slice across just above Alban and the French River – 250,000 acres in total.

The band’s lawyer, Aaron Detlor, has called the requested amount conservative considering the mining industry’s estimated $1 trillion impact in the Sudbury basin and from land that once belonged to Whitefish Lake.

Mining companies cannot take their ore bodies and go elsewhere, just as forestry companies cannot move their timber limits.

What these industries can do is invest their money in other jurisdictions. The federal government played a key role in crippling a once healthy forestry industry.

Job Loss

It lost 12,000 jobs last year and another 10,500 are expected to be lost this year, according to the Conference Boards of Canada. The board said the forestry sector lost $750 million in 2007 and more losses this year.

Ottawa is fast to try talking a problem to death but slow to act. The land claim issue is old and while politicians have all the time in the world, the mining industry cannot wait.

The present health of the mining industry is robust with mineral production exceeding $40 billion annually.

The trouble is that mines are born to die. Unless new ore bodies are found to replace those depleted the industry will decline. That means tax revenues will decline as well.

To find new mines, companies and individuals must be allowed to stake ground, explore it and eventually develop it.

The Mining Association of Canada sees access to land as a problem requiring government action if the industry is to stay healthy.

It makes sense that everyone involved in the use of land become involved.

Gregory Reynolds is a Timmins, Canada-based columnist who writes extensively about mining and northern Ontario issues