Natural resources key to aboriginal peace, northern Ontario leaders say

FORT HOPE FIRST NATION, Ont. – Charlie Okeese says he has a better idea for First Nations than protesting in city streets with banners and drums.

Like the Idle No More protesters, the band councillor from this fly-in northern Ontario reserve wants a better deal for his people.

But the best way to get it, he says, is to have the federal and provincial governments get together with native leaders and determine, once and for all, how to divide the spoils of natural resources fairly.

“We have to come to that table and lock the doors behind us. Let’s talk it out,” he said in an early morning interview in the band office hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest city.

“Yes, we’re frustrated as native people. But there are ways to get things done.”

Indeed, the federal and provincial governments have expressed a willingness to have those very talks — at least as they pertain to the Ring of Fire near Fort Hope, Ont.

The Ring, 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, is rich in newly discovered resources. Mining companies have plans to extract chromite and nickel, and maybe other metals some day.

The muskeg that covers the sparsely populated area around Fort Hope contains world-class deposits that could bring huge investment, jobs, roads and hydro to one of the few forests in the world left untouched by industry.

The Ring is also rich in history. Remote First Nations signed treaties with the Crown more than 100 years ago that they say have left them destitute, reeling with daily crises tied to housing, education, addiction, rampant unemployment and suicide.

No one is ready to accept the status quo, each for his own reasons. Such conditions stand in the way of efficient resource development, if nothing else.

So now, both levels of governments have indicated they’re willing to sit down and hash out exactly how those treaties signed so long ago should be interpreted in the modern age.

“We’ve got a chance now,” Okeese says.

Ontario has been asking for a tripartite process to negotiate the broader issues of Ring of Fire development for some time, according to background documents.

And in a recent briefing with The Canadian Press, a senior official with Aboriginal Affairs in Ottawa says the federal government is thinking along the same lines.

“We see this as a very realistic opportunity,” said the official, who spoke on condition his name not be used, as has become customary with senior bureaucrats giving official briefings to reporters.

Section 35 of the Constitution obliges governments to consult meaningfully with First Nations on anything that would touch their way of life. While the Constitution is vague, court rulings are making it more and more clear that the duty to consult is far-reaching, and that governments must to some extent accommodate native demands.

By putting together a tripartite negotiating table, governments and First Nations can discuss their broader concerns about development in the Ring of Fire — infrastructure, hydro, training, jobs, benefits to reserves, overlapping claims, how to divide the proceeds and how to deal with the cumulative effects of industrial development — without having to consult on each issue separately with each interested party, the official said.

“What we’re looking at is a table that deals specifically with the Section 35 duty-to-consult obligations,” he explained.

“A table like this might deal with some of the consultation fatigue that occurs. It helps focus some of the capacity building, so that communities are not being besieged by government officials or industry proponents. So in a way, it is simplifying and making it more coherent for everybody.”

The table would confront the same issue at the heart of the Idle No More protests across the country and the hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.

As they angrily demand talks with the highest levels of government and garner support from protest movements across the continent, chiefs in the Ring of Fire region are hiring a small army of lawyers and consultants, talking with government officials, examining historical documents and soul-searching to define exactly what they hope to achieve.

Okeese is no less angry than Spence or the protesters. He is outraged, repeatedly, about the “X” his ancestors used to sign treaties they didn’t understand, calling the ancient agreements “the biggest land robbery ever.”

“We gave up everything,” he says. “Our people didn’t know what they were signing.”

Protesters are hitting the streets because the younger generation is realizing the injustice of the way treaties have been implemented, with no respect for the nature of the agreements, Okeese said.

But now that mining companies and governments alike are thirsty for resource extraction from his area, First Nations have a chance to discuss their concerns in a broad way, area chiefs say.

Still, a willingness to talk does not assure a successful outcome. Mistrust runs deep in federal-aboriginal relations, and both sides come with significant baggage.

“We’re trying to get the government to come to the table and recognize treaty obligations. They say they want to talk. We’ve heard that before,” said Cornelius Wabasse, chief of the Webequie First Nation, one of the closest reserves to the mining interests in the Ring of Fire.

Over in Marten Falls, another nearby First Nation, Chief Eli Moonias sees the federal government turning a blind eye to environmental degradation in the oilsands, and doesn’t want to see the same thing happen in his territory.

“How are you going to assure me that this is not going to happen here,” he said.

That question will be answered in the environmental assessment process, rather than the tripartite table, but it underlines the lack of confidence Moonias has in dealing with Ottawa.

There’s tension among the First Nations, too. Moonias says other bands are laying claim to some of his traditional territory in the hopes of bargaining for a larger percentage of the eventual benefits of mining.

“The whole of Ring of Fire is in our territory. Webequie says it’s theirs. Landsdowne is saying so, too,” said Moonias. “We have the larger percentage because we have the largest territory.”

And which First Nations should be at the table? Should Attawapiskat be there because it is downstream from the proposed development?

The chiefs are planning to meet next month to sort things out, recognizing they will negotiate better if they work together, Moonias said.

Back in Fort Hope, Okeese says he believes that once all parties sit down and look each other in the eye as equals, respect will reign and mutually beneficial solutions can be reached.

Like Ottawa, he said, First Nations are fed up with dependence on government hand-outs that can be cut at the whim of the prime minister.

“Until there is a commitment from governments, I don’t think there will be any resource development up north,” he said. “We’ve got to go back to the treaty table.”

His 36-year-old son Roland Okeese, who wants to get training and find work in mining eventually, hopes to see a fair deal.

“I’d like for it to happen,” he said. “But it has to be where we can all benefit.”