Cutting through the fog [Aboriginal, Industry and Environment Relations]- (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal editorial – April 10, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario. This editorial was originally published on April 10, 2011. 

AS the chasm of trust between Aboriginals and the rest of Canada widens, every effort to shrink it deserves encouragement. Two such initiatives have surfaced, and while one remains in play, the other has been batted away.

For decades, relations between conservation groups and the forest industry have been poisoned. Greenpeace banners hung from pulp mill smokestacks vividly portrayed an absence of will and trust.

So when 21 forest companies and nine environmental organizations quietly came up with the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement last year there was cause for celebration. The pact would regulate forest management practices across 72 million hectares of boreal forest and protect 29 million hectares from development.

Unfortunately, the signatories forgot to ask the First Nations that reside in the forest. They have since apologized, but the hurt is long and deep enough that the apology has not been accepted.

First Nations are rightly annoyed at the longstanding lack of consultation by forest and mining developers across the North. It’s been going on for years, but lately, especially in Northern Ontario, things are changing.

The biggest mining development in Canada around the so-called Ring of Fire has drawn immense interest and exploration activity. But spurred by provincial government guidance borne of First Nations insistence, the concept of negotiating development deals with adjacent First Nations is becoming the norm.

When First Nations leaders got wind of the boreal forest agreement, they were up in arms. The deal should be cancelled, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy last month.

Beardy repeated his assertion in a commentary here last week that answered an earlier one from Stephen Kakfwi, former premier of the Northwest Territories and former president of the Dene Nation.

Kakfwi identified with First Nations’ frustration, but said leaders have to “recognize that an apology has been made, and that there is a public commitment to recognize our leadership and our rights . . .

“Now is not a time to retreat or sulk; it’s time for us to show our leadership and commitment to protecting our forest, land, waters and wildlife, and to build our economies. To do that successfully, I believe we need alliances with environmental groups and industry.”

That Beardy and others are unwilling to seize the moment, while partly understandable, is not helpful and merely delays a process that is trying hard to get going.

Meanwhile, in the federal riding of Kenora, party politics are being shaken up in this election by an independent candidate named Kelvin Chicago-Boucher. A member of the Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation, his campaign is, ironically, based upon “participation.”

Mainly, he wants residents on and off reserves to be able to openly and effectively participate in the affairs of their communities. He wants controls placed upon chiefs and band councils to prevent favouritism and punishment in the use of band resources. He wants First Nations to be active participants in development and to have all First Nations members share in the benefits.

There are aboriginal voices out there trying to break through the fog; they deserve a chance to be heard and considered.