A legal appeal with national implications on Aboriginal treaty rights now rests in the hands of the judges after arguments in Grassy Narrows versus Ontario closed last week.
The legal battle between Ontario and Grassy Narrows First Nation over clear-cut logging on Grassy Narrows’ traditional territory has been ongoing for over a decade. In 2011 an Ontario judge ruled in favour of the First Nation, essentially saying that Ontario did have not the authority to authorize logging that violated treaty rights.
Ontario’s appeal of the decision was “hard fought,” said Grassy Narrows’ legal representative Robert Janes. “This will be a precedent-setting case,” Janes said, adding that a decision may take anywhere from four to seven months given the case’s complexity and the likelihood it will go to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Ontario argues that the province has jurisdiction over treaty rights, which allows it to authorize logging or other activities that may violate the treaties. But Grassy Narrows’ lawyers respond that only the federal government has the jurisdiction over treaty rights, so that Ontario cannot approve projects that impose on the treaties. The original court case was initiated by three Grassy Narrows’ trappers in 2000.
“Our community has suffered for too long from the impacts of industry imposed on our people,” said Joseph Forbister, one of the three trappers who initiated the legal action. “We will not allow industry to further damage our way of life and our health by poisoning our water and destroying the forests that we depend on.”
Janes said other provinces are watching the case closely, as the decision of Ontario’s ability to take jurisdiction on treaty rights resonates across the country.
The lawyer noted that the federal government is supporting Ontario in the case, despite the fact that a decision in Ontario’s favour would take power over treaties out of the hands of Canada.
Janes explained that the judge needs to decide whether Ontario can use all or some of Canada’s powers to interfere with treaty rights, or whether the federal government is the only government with the authority to interfere with treaty rights.
Grassy Narrows maintains that industrial activity on its traditional lands must respect the First Nation’s right to say “no”, as recognized by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“It is time for Ontario to finally stop wasting time and money trying to force damaging clearcut logging on our community, and to begin the process of reconciliation by respecting our treaty and Aboriginal rights as we defend our forest-based way of life,” said Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Forbister in a press release.