Understanding Aboriginal Treaties Key for Ring of Fire Projects – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (February 25, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario. This editorial was originally published on August 6, 2009.

For an extensive list of articles on this mineral discovery, please go to: Ontario’s Ring of Fire Mineral Discovery

NISHNAWBE Aski Nation (NAN) is to be commended for initiating a forum to explain the treaties that govern its people in relation to the rest of Northwestern Ontario. Generalized references to treaty rights have marked every disagreement over land and resources, but outside of band offices, a few academics and relevant government departments, most people don’t understand what was agreed to up to a century ago and more.

The passage of so much time has resulted in many interpretations about what treaties say and what was meant by those who signed them. In seeking to create “an understanding of the treaty relationship between First Nations and the greater society of Canada,” NAN Grand Chief Stan Beardy is conducting an important exercise.

Beardy offers the view that Treaties 5 and 9, governing NAN territory, are based on “peaceful co-existence.” Even a brief parsing of the federal government’s description of these treaties shows they were hard to come by. That being said, they are the law of the land for Indians and understanding them is more important than ever.

Beardy is particularly interested in settling differences of opinion on treaties in order to smooth the way to an equitable sharing of the considerable spoils that will come from the rich Ring of Fire mineral development in the James Bay Lowlands, part of Treaty 9.

It would help if other First Nations leaders shared Beardy’s interest in peaceful co-existence. At another NAN event this week, a spokesman for Matawa First Nations, a NAN sub-group nearest the Ring of Fire, said that blockading mining companies’ access to the area seems to be the only way to get government to listen to its demands for inclusion in planning the development.

Matawa’s Ring of Fire co-ordinator, Raymond Ferris, said if communities decide on more blockades, he’ll support them.

Blockades have already poisoned relations between miners and First Nations, both of whom look to government to facilitate agreements. The Ontario government, which is uniquely part of Treaty 9, has been trying to settle these differences and its new Mining Act came with a promise to do so. Clearly, it hasn’t.

First Nations insist they must be consulted from the outset of mining exploration plans and then share in jobs and revenue from mine operations. There have not been many processes with more chance for input than the new Mining Act and the Mines Minister, a host of other provincial officials and many mining officials have tried to create a plan by which exploration and eventually development can proceed with First Nations approval.

Negotiations involve give and take. And they must have a timeline for completion in order to proceed. Surely, Beardy, Ferris, Mines Minister Michael Gravelle and the CEOs of the key mining companies can reach an equitable agreement if they sit down in one room. It can’t be that complicated if everyone is sincerely committed to that give and take. Failing that, let them agree on an independent three-person commission with expertise in treaties and provincial legislation that will write a template agreement on a firm timeline that specifies the expectations and responsibilities of all parties.

And then let’s get Northwestern Ontario’s new economic engine started.