Elephant In the Room: A First Nations perspective on the Far North Act – Stan Beardy (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal – December 3, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

Stan Beardy is Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN). NAN is a political organization representing 49 First Nation communities across Treaty 9 and Treaty 5 areas of northern Ontario.

“The heart of First Nations’ objections to the [Far North] act
is the unilateral imposition of an interconnected protected
area of at least 225,000 square kilometres (about 21 per
cent of Ontario). This infringes on First Nations’
aboriginal and treaty rights as protected in the Canada
Constitution Act, 1982.” (Stan Beardy – Grand Chief  of NAN)

Stan Beardy – Grand Chief of NAN

I am writing in response to the commentary, Development, Protection; Far North Act Clarifies Land Use Planning (Nov. 21) by Ontario Natural Resources Minister Michael Gravelle.

It appears the Ontario government feels that there is still much convincing to do on an issue that continues to find First Nations and government on opposing sides. Truth be known, the Far North Act is currently being implemented in spite of the objections of First Nations.

The heart of First Nations’ objections to the act is the unilateral imposition of an interconnected protected area of at least 225,000 square kilometres (about 21 per cent of Ontario). This infringes on First Nations’ aboriginal and treaty rights as protected in the Canada Constitution Act, 1982.

The minister said in his commentary that “those who characterize this protected area as a vast park are irresponsible and certainly disrespectful of the First Nations.”

This could not be further from the truth, especially given the fact that this is exactly how it is understood by First Nations themselves, an imposed vast park.

The act establishes a land use planning (LUP) system that is open to First Nation participation. However, there is one major caveat. Participation in this system requires that LUPs contribute square kilometres for the vast park (remember, this was not something asked for by First Nations).

The core elements of every land use plan are subject to a provincial veto which is in complete denial of a standard that is being recognized internationally, that is, the right for First Nations to provide free, prior and informed consent. Canada and Ontario still have yet to catch up to this standard.

The minister tried to justify the act based on First Nation participation in the LUP process. What the minister failed to mention was that First Nations are participating under duress.

First Nations have been keenly interested in LUP for many years; they just never wanted the Far North Act. Tying funds to the act leaves First Nations with few alternatives; it is not a sign of acquiescence.
In the recent Speech from the Throne, the government spoke of its plans to develop “good, leading-edge northern jobs.”

While the government moves to make this vision a reality (which is without a doubt, a vision shared by First Nations), the question that remains is how First Nation opposition to the Far North Act might factor in.
Does it matter?

First Nations have responded to this question with a resounding, “yes it does.” Thus far, the government has taken the “elephant-in-the-room” approach where they seem to be thinking that if it is ignored, it might go away.

Potential investors willing to put in the resources to create jobs are aware of the financial, operational, reputational and even legal risk of a tainted environment. Ultimately, it affects the very vision created by government and sadly, it stifles economic growth. First Nations do not see this as a positive approach moving forward. They want to close the socio-economic gap between First Nations and non-First Nations in Ontario.

Imposing an unwanted act will not lead us towards this end.

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