Weenusk struggles to keep home lands free – Shawn Bell (Wawatay News – July 26, 2012)

 Northern Ontario’s First Nations Voice: http://wawataynews.ca/

Residents of Weenusk First Nation are fearing for the loss of their traditional lifestyles as Ontario gets set to release geological data on one of the province’s last pristine wildernesses.
The Ontario Geologic Survey (OGS) conducted aerial geological surveying over a broad section of untouched wilderness along the shore of Hudson Bay between November 2011 and February 2012.

Many people in Weenusk, a community of approximately 300, believe the release of the information will spur mineral exploration on much of the First Nation’s traditional territory, and in the process irrevocably alter a way of life that has been practiced since time immemorial.
“We want to keep the land free,” says George Hunter, a community member and former chief of Weenusk. “To us, freedom doesn’t have staked claims. The moment you have staked claims and private property, our true freedom is compromised forever.”
The information from the aerial surveying was supposed to be released to the public on June 5, until the First Nation found out about the survey and demanded that the release be postponed. Now the public release is scheduled for later this year, following a meeting and presentation by OGS in the community.
Public release postponed

One of the major issues the First Nation has with the aerial surveying is the fact that Weenusk was never informed or consulted before the surveys took place.

Weenusk Chief Edmund Hunter said he and his council only found out that the government had surveyed Weenusk traditional land through an unrelated discussion with DeBeers.
The chief’s conversation with DeBeers took place merely weeks before the scheduled release of the information.

At the request of Weenusk, OGS postponed the release – first to August 8, and now to an unspecified later date, pending a meeting with the community.

A plan for OGS to visit the community in mid-July was postponed until later this year. At that meeting OGS plans to present the aerial surveying information and explain what geological surveying is all about.
Yet for George Hunter and those who believe as he does, OGS should never have done aerial surveying in the first place without informing and getting the consent of Weenusk.

And had OGS asked permission, Hunter says the community would have been clear: the geologists were not welcome.
“Once you allow these processes to begin, our schedules and our land use plans don’t mean a damn thing,” Hunter says. “We don’t want to allow the province to issue licenses for staking to place, and the only advantage we have now is that nobody has access to the land.”
Land use plans and mineral exploration
The OGS is a branch of Ontario’s Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. According to Jack Parker, the senior manager of the OGS branch of the department, the aerial surveying done around Weenusk is regularly conducted around the province as a way of updating the geological information of Ontario.
Last winter, besides the Weenusk surveying, OGS also conducted aerial surveying around Eabametoong First Nation.

Parker said the last time geological surveying was done along the shore of Hudson Bay was in the 1960s. Geologists still know little about the region, where there are few rock outcrops and the sheer remoteness of the land makes it hard to access.
While he did not have a clear answer to why Weenusk was not consulted over the surveying of its traditional land, Parker did say it is OGS’ common practice to inform First Nations when this type of surveying is planned.
For example he noted upcoming aerial surveying scheduled for to cover more of the shore of Hudson Bay, including Fort Severn First Nation’s traditional land. That surveying is expected to happen this coming winter. Parker said OGS has had ongoing discussions with Fort Severn’s chief and council, and there are plans to visit Fort Severn in August.
Parker said that one of the government’s main objectives in conducting aerial surveying in the Far North is to help First Nations with land use planning. He explained that geoscience can be valuable when First Nations make decisions on how lands are going to be used in the future – as the surveys can provide information on the distribution of rock types and the location of ground water sources, along with other information.
Parker also acknowledged that the release of aerial geologic surveying often leads to increased mineral exploration in the region.
“It is a possibility,” Parker said. “Airborne geophysical surveying has been known to trigger mineral exploration.”
Protecting the land and lifestyle

When George Hunter talks about Weenusk’s traditional land, he does so with passion. The people of Weenusk retain ties to traditional ways as close as any First Nation in Ontario. The community harvests caribou in winter, geese in the spring, fish in the summer and moose in the fall. George Hunter believes that the connection to the land is vital for his people’s health and well-being.

“We have this natural food that is so abundant still. Everything is natural, and that’s what makes us healthy,” George Hunter said. “Five hundred years from now, our future generation is also going to need a land base to survive. We don’t want to compromise their future either.”
While George Hunter says most of the community feels the same way he does about preventing mining exploration in the territory, Chief Edmund Hunter thinks the issue is a lot more muddled.
Edmund Hunter said that in his view, the community is split between those who want to prevent exploration from happening, and those who want to encourage it.
The chief said many of the community’s young people want to see more development of the region.
“The best way to go is to have a referendum in the near future about the exploration activities on traditional land,” Edmund Hunter said. He said the community will hold the referendum before the scheduled release of the geological survey.
For now, the issue is at a standstill. OGS has agreed to postpone the release, and Weenusk will hold its referendum in the meantime.

Yet, as George Hunter knows well, the demand for the minerals of the Far North continues to grow. DeBeers has contacted the First Nation about exploring for diamonds in the region, and other companies are expected to follow suit.
“This is the last frontier, this little corner we’ve got here,” he said. “We’re unique. We’d rather live on a land that’s natural. It’s different up here, and there are a lot of blessings that we’ve got.”