Liberals push through Far North bill despite First Nations outcry – by Tanya Talaga (Toronto Star-September 24, 2010)

Tanya Talaga is the Queen’s Park (Ontario Provincial Government) reporter for the Toronto Star, which has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on Canada’s federal and provincial politics as well as shaping public opinion. This article was originally published September 24, 2010.

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Liberals push through Far North bill despite First Nations outcry

A controversial bill aimed at protecting 225,000 square kilometres in northern Ontario and opening the rest up to development passed Thursday despite fierce First Nations objections. The provincial Liberals argue Bill 191 is a “first in Ontario’s history,” because it calls for First Nations’ approval of land-use plans.

Until now, there were essentially no rules, the government says. But natives say their approval is ultimately meaningless because the government has the power to override their land use decisions. And that, they say, is a violation of their treaty rights.

Many who live and work in the North – from the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce to the Ontario Forestry Association and Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) – say the bill will slow down mining and resource development. The Nishnawbe Aski Nation is a political organization that represents the 49 First Nations that cover two-thirds of the province’s land mass.

However, land-use plans are needed to guide economic development, said Natural Resources Minister Linda Jeffrey. For instance, Jeffrey told reporters, Bill 191 is key to establishing rules to manage development in the resource-rich region known as the Ring of Fire.

The ring, more than 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, is said to contain one of the world’s largest deposits of chromite – an ingredient used to make stainless steel.

“This is a beginning of a new dialogue with First Nations communities,” Jeffrey said.

Not every chief is opposed to the bill, she said, noting the government signed two agreements last week to create land-use plans with Webequie and Marten Falls First Nations. Both communities sit on land in the Ring of Fire area.

“There are enough chiefs up there that want economic development,” she said. “They want education and certainly the companies that want to do business in the north want the certainty. I think the Far North Act will help with that.”

Environmentalists are pleased with the legislation, as it protects approximately 225,000 square kilometres of pristine land, including the sensitive boreal forest – one of the world’s most important carbon storehouses.

The bill passed 46 to 26.

NAN Deputy Grand Chief Mike Metatawabin said in a statement after the vote passed that the bill violates treaty rights and takes the ability of First Nations to protect the land they inhabit.
“We will continue to uphold our aboriginal and treaty rights and jurisdiction over our land,” he said. “The real fight is just beginning.”

Both the New Democratic Party and the Progressive Conservatives oppose the legislation. PC MPP Randy Hillier (Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington) said the bill is a vote grab by the Liberals to appease southern voters. Passing this legislation could result in northern conflict, he warned.

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