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Janet Sumner is executive director and Anna Baggio is conservation land use planning director for CPAWS-Wildlands League, based in Ontario.
Like many other Canadians, we’ve been searching our souls in response to the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, home to the Muskego Cree First Nation. We have visited Attawapiskat several times. We’ve stayed at the Kataquapit Inn and enjoyed the community’s hospitality, including a traditional feast of caribou and lake sturgeon. Our work to conserve Ontario’s northern boreal forest has been enriched by the insights of the elders and other members of the community.
That is why the people of Attawapiskat are very much in our hearts today. While a donation to the Red Cross is always a good idea, we believe Canada needs to do far more to fix the problems bedevilling Attawapiskat and many other northern First Nations communities.
It’s time for a fundamental rethink of the relationship between major industrial players in the north, our governments and affected First Nations communities.
We first became involved with Attawapiskat when the environmental assessment of the nearby De Beers Victor Diamond Mine was underway nearly seven years ago. As conservationists, our concern was that the federal and provincial governments were not adequately assessing the cumulative environmental and social effects of this proposed mine in a very sensitive landscape. We raised concerns about the mine’s impacts on water quality and wildlife such as boreal woodland caribou. We also criticized the company’s offer of guaranteeing only 12 per cent of the mine’s jobs to the nearest community, Attawapiskat. In our view this was not nearly enough to enable the community to improve its dire economic circumstances.
It was also very apparent to us that local First Nation communities had neither the time nor the capacity to plan for the massive changes to their traditional land use areas and communities that the Victor Mine and other such developments would bring. Although the provincial government had committed to undertake comprehensive land-use planning in advance of industrial development in this region, it had no policy in place to achieve this commitment, and offered scant resources to First Nations to engage in negotiations with sophisticated corporations such as De Beers.
For the rest of this column, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1098714–rethinking-the-future-of-ontario-s-north