Balance in Far North Bill – Toronto Star September 19, 2010 Editorial Comment on McGuinty Liberal’s “Far North Bill”

The Toronto Star 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 editorial was originally published on September 19, 2010.

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Beyond romantic notions of caribou running wild across endless tundra, most Ontarians know very little about the northernmost 40 per cent of our province.

Much of the land is barren and beautiful, but it is also facing increasing pressure for development; logging, mining and power companies all see great potential there. The First Nations, who have long called the region home, need a say in determining the future of the land and an assurance that they will benefit economically from its development.

The province, on the other hand, needs to balance these interests with environmental protections for the northern boreal region, a globally significant ecosystem. The provincial government’s Far North Act, Bill 191, would achieve that balance.

So it is unfortunate that the chiefs of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) territory are threatening that there will be “no peace on the land” if the government passes the bill in the coming days.

To be sure, the process of arriving at the legislation was far from perfect; the government conducted an abysmal consultation process. However, thanks to a series of amendments approved in committee last week, the legislation now provides for a comprehensive land planning regime that would give industry certainty about the rules, provide tools for environmental protection and, most importantly, give First Nations communities far more power than they currently have to control development of their traditional lands.

The bill would require that half the land — 225,000 square kilometres, an area about the size of Great Britain — be protected while the other half would be left open for business. But decisions about which specific sites would be protected would be left to detailed plans, with First Nations communities having the final say, subject to cabinet override on rare occasions.

Conservative Leader Tim Hudak says the legislation would turn the far north into “a giant museum.” But it is estimated that less than 2 per cent of the land is currently developed, so the room for economic growth in the region under this legislation would still be enormous.

At the heart of NAN’s opposition is what the legislation fails to do: right historic injustices or settle outstanding treaty disputes. But it was never intended to do that. Those are important issues, but resolving them will take years, and Ottawa’s participation.

The north can’t wait. Without Bill 191, there is no hope of protecting land in any sort of comprehensive way or sensibly developing land to the benefit of First Nations communities and Ontario’s long-term northern economy.

In moving forward, Premier Dalton McGuinty is hoping that NAN will eventually come onside rather than face a government run by Hudak and the Conservatives, no friends of the First Nations. McGuinty is doing the right thing. A fight over treaties and jurisdiction ought not to hold up necessary planning reform for the province’s far north.

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