While the decision in the Grassy Narrows versus Ontario legal battle, expected sometime this year, will impact treaty rights for First Nations across the country, one of Grassy Narrows’ closest neighbours may be the most affected by the decision.
Wabauskang Treaty #3 First Nation is in the midst of its own legal struggle over resource development on its traditional territory, since it took gold mining company Rubicon Minerals to court in December 2012.
Wabauskang Chief Leslie Cameron said his community is looking to the decision in the Grassy Narrows case, called the Keewatin decision, for clarity in its own legal situation.
“We were heavily involved in the Keewatin appeal and made arguments in support of Grassy Narrows and that support our own case against Rubicon and Ontario,” Cameron said. “The Court of Appeal seemed really interested in our arguments. We’re expecting to win.”
Even though Grassy Narrows is targeting the forestry industry and Wabauskang the mineral sector, both conflicts essentially argue the same point – that Ontario has no jurisdiction to approve projects on First Nations land, since the federal government oversees First Nations issues.
After a decade-long court struggle, an Ontario judge ruled in favour of Grassy Narrows in July 2011, saying the provincial government did not have the authority to approve projects that would violate treaty rights.
Ontario promptly appealed the decision. The appeal wrapped up in January 2013, and a decision is expected sometime within the next six months.
Grassy Narrows’ legal council Robert Janes, of Janes Freedman Kyle Law, told Wawatay that the Keewatin appeal will most likely end up at the Supreme Court of Canada.
“This is a precedent setting case,” Janes said on January 30, adding that provinces across Canada are watching the case closely.
For Cameron, the precedent of the Keewatin case will be felt in his own backyard.
Wabauskang’s chief has long argued that Ontario is passing its responsibility to consult with First Nations down to mining companies, with the result that First Nation interests are being overlooked in the process.
In the Rubicon case, Cameron said his community opposed the company’s plans since it was first contacted about them in 2009. Yet Ontario approved Rubicon’s mine, leaving Wabauskang no choice but to go to court.
“We didn’t want to go to court, so even though we don’t think Ontario had the authority to approve the mine, we tried to work with the company over the last year to resolve our concerns,” Cameron said on Dec. 18. “We’ve been unsuccessful, so we’re forced to go to court to ensure that our interests are protected.”
Now, as Wabauskang awaits the Keewatin decision along with the rest of the country, Cameron is hopeful that the courts will set right a situation that does not work for First Nations.
“If we’re successful, Ontario’s going to have to totally rethink how it treats us and other Treaty #3 First Nations when it comes to mining,” Cameron said. “We’re reasonable people. We’re not saying the mine can’t ever go ahead. But we have to be treated properly and our treaty rights have to be respected.
“So far, neither Rubicon nor Ontario has done this, even after we filed our lawsuit,” he added. “When Keewatin is decided in our favour, they won’t have any choice but to get serious with us.”