QUEEN’S PARK – The battle over who is listening is being fought in Queen’s Park. During Question Period today, the NDP leader Andrea Horwath was up questioning the Premier on the differences between the Ontario government and the First Nations over the Ring of Fire.
Howath asked Premier Dalton McGuinty, “Last week, the government assured this Legislature and the public that First Nations partners were being properly consulted about development in the Ring of Fire. Today, we’re hearing a very different story from the Neskantaga First Nation, whose legal counsel asserts that the government breached its legal duty to consult. Why has this government shown no serious willingness—and those are the First Nations’ words—to address the concerns of Neskantaga and other Mattawa First Nations?”
The Premier responded, “I just want to say that we take our responsibilities very seriously when it comes to consulting with our First Nations partners. We understand there is legal obligation there, but we also feel a sense of responsibility, on behalf of all Ontarians, to make sure that we are working with our First Nations partners, especially when it comes to exciting new opportunities to be found in the Ring of Fire. I know that specific efforts were made to reach out to those communities in the past. We will continue to find ways to move forward.
“None of this is going to be easy, but more than anything else, I think it does represent a hopeful, bright opportunity, especially when it comes to resource benefit sharing with our aboriginal partners, to ensure that they can participate in economic growth as we move forward”.
In her supplementary question, Horwath said, “Well, according to media reports, Neskantaga Chief Peter Moonias is afraid to say hi to the minister for fear that the McGuinty government will interpret that as meaningful consultation. It’s clear that the government is bungling this, and thousands of jobs in the Ring of Fire for northerners actually hang in the balance. When will this government stop putting the cart before the horse and have a full discussion with First Nations partners that includes a proper environmental assessment and the creation of a regional decision-making forum?”
The Premier deferred the question to Kathleen Wynne, the Liberal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs. The Minister said, in response, “As I have said in this House, we are very clear that in order for the Ring of Fire development to go forward—and remember that the Ring of Fire is the most promising economic mineral development opportunity in the north that we’ve seen in a generation, so in order for it to go forward in the best way possible, we know that this is a partnership: the federal government, First Nations, the provincial government and the companies working together.
“So we’ve been very clear that the formal process of engagement will begin. There was a business decision that was made, and in order for First Nations not to discover the day of the announcement in the newspaper, we reached out to many of the communities the day before. We had a conversation with them.
“But we’ve been making investments for a year. We’ve invested $8 million in the Ring of Fire communities. We will continue that engagement now”.
The Minister’s answer appears to be contrary to a Supreme Court of Canada decision that the Neskantaga First Nation’s lawyers raised in a letter to Minister of Northern Development and Mines Bartolucci. Naskantaga’s legal team stated, in a letter to the Minister, “”Further, your Ministry and the project proponent, Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. have been well aware that the proposed project and its related infrastructure will have significant adverse impacts on the Neskantaga lands, culture and aboriginal interests. Despite this knowledge, Ontario has proceeded with discussions with the proponent and other First Nations to the exclusion of Neskantaga. We are now advised that your Ministry has announced that Ontario intends to proceed with this project, and to provide funding to the proponent for infrastructure without having fulfilled the duty of consultation and many other First Nations directly affected”
The letter to the Minister continued, “In Rio Tinto Alcan v Carrier Sekani Tribal Council (SSC 2012 43), the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed “the duty to consult extends to the strategic, higher level decisions that may have an impact on Aboriginal claims and rights” and “is not confined to the government exercise of statutory powers”. In Kwikwetlern v BCUC (2009 BCCA 68) the BC Court of appeal found that the duty extends “at every stage of a Crown activity that has the potential to affect their Aboriginal interests” and applies to the choice of options well before statutory decisions have been applied for or made”.
Minister Wynne’s answer led to the New Democrat leader next question, “The promise will not be realized unless this government gets serious about doing right by First Nations in northern Ontario. New Democrats have long called, in fact, for a stand-alone Minister of Aboriginal Affairs who can devote their full attention to the priorities concerning First Nations. The mishandling of the Cliffs announcement only underscores this need. It is very clear: This has to happen in Ontario.
“When will this government take their duty to consult with First Nations seriously and dedicate resources to do so?”
Wynne responded “This is the government that set up a stand-alone Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, not that party when they were in office. We set up the ministry and we are working in conjunction with First Nations. We are very clear that there will be a formal engagement, there will be a discussion.
I say to the leader of the third party, she has a choice right now. She has a choice—”.
That led to some uproar in the legislature.
Interjection: Calm down. Calm down, lady.
The Speaker (Hon. Dave Levac): I did not find that appropriate. Minister?
Wynne responded, “Mr. Speaker, the member opposite who shouted out “calm down”—I really believe that there’s a need for an emotional engagement on this issue. I think that this is an important moment in Ontario’s history and the importance of it is that we work together and that we not undermine the process.
“There is a history of neglect and of conflict that we have to overcome in terms of working with our First Nations people. It is our commitment to do that. It is our commitment that the 1,100 jobs that are available will be shared with First Nations and we are going to work to make that happen.”
Last week Minister of Finance Dwight Duncan reported that there would be 1200 jobs for First Nations. It is starting to appear that the McGuinty government needs to co-ordinate the speaking points for all of its Ministers so that the Liberals are all speaking from the same page.