Audio

First Nations near Ring of Fire press Indigenous affairs minister over consultation

The chiefs of two First Nations near the Ring of Fire again pressed the Ontario government over how they will be consulted over any future developments in the remote north.

Chiefs of Eabametoong, Neskantaga addressed Greg Rickford at Chiefs of Ontario assembly

Elizabeth Atlookan is the chief of Eabametoong First Nation. (Jody Porter/CBC)
The chief of Eabametoong finally got some face time with Ontario's Indigenous Affairs minister. Not in a meeting room, but at the Chiefs of Ontario's assembly in Toronto. 4:51

The chiefs of two First Nations near the Ring of Fire again pressed the Ontario government over how they will be consulted over any future developments in the remote north.

That comes as Eabametoong Chief Elizabeth Atlookan took Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford to task over not yet responding to a request for a face-to-face meeting. Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias also addressed the minister when he took questions at the Chiefs of Ontario's Special Chiefs Assembly in Toronto on Wednesday.

"I can't get to meet with you, I've requested meetings," Atlookan said to Rickford at the assembly. "I haven't heard zilch from you."

Atlookan was also at Queen's Park in Toronto in September when Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa pushed the government for answers on the future of the regional framework agreement.

"It seems to me that you're very project-driven, same as the Premier," she said on Wednesday, also referencing Doug Ford's comment during the 2018 election campaign that, if needed, he'll "hop on that bulldozer myself," to get a road built to the mineral-rich areas in the James Bay lowlands, located about 575 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.

"The most I hear is concerns about the land," Atlookan continued, adding that there are many diverse opinions within her community alone and across the remote north that have to be considered when any development decisions are made.

"We said a balanced, joint decision-making [process is needed] because it's going to forever change the landscape of where we're from."
The Ring of Fire is located nearly 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay in the James Bay lowlands.

The Ford government hasn't said much about how talks between the nine Matawa First Nations and the province will look going forward since taking office in June. The chiefs sent a letter of congratulations to the new government over the summer, which the office of Premier Doug Ford responded to on Aug. 9, saying that Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford would respond "as soon as possible."

"It's something that you have to really think about," Atlookan said. "When you talk about friendship, relationship[s], building those; you know, how can you move forward in the north if you [haven't] established those relationships?"

Meeting will happen 'in fairly short order'

Eabametoong and Neskantaga have raised concerns about the existing regional framework agreement, established under the previous Liberal government, that was designed to guide negotiations surrounding the Ring of Fire.

They slammed the Wynne government over the summer for how the regional talks were moving ahead, calling them unreasonable and unfair and accusing the province of engaging in a "closed-door" process with respect to environmental assessments undertaken by other Matawa communities.

The two communities reaffirmed their commitment to supporting each other in a joint statement released earlier in November; the statement also said that any attempt by government to work with select communities "is fraught with legal and technical issues that will backfire."
Greg Rickford is Ontario's Minister of Indigenous Affairs. (Martine Laberge/CBC)

Rickford told Atlookan he doesn't "have a whole lot of disagreement" with some of her comments.

"I'm happy to meet with you in fairly short order."

"My job is, in the capacity as a minister, is to strike a balance in those interests and find a way to meet the expectations of a province and of a region and then, within that region, the distinctly different paths that communities might choose ... where that goes and how the province of Ontario fits into that," Rickford said.

'We have to be honest'

Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias warned Rickford that "a true partnership" has to be based on respect and joint decision-making.

"I have tremendous ... respect for having respectful dialogues and I think it's important that we have to have that," Moonias said to Rickford. "But we have to be honest."

"That's not just going to be rolled over because it's for economic purposes; there's more to that when we're talking about our lands and resources."
Wayne Moonias is the chief of Neskantaga First Nation. (CBC)

Rickford said he'd like to start by doing a "practical and pragmatic exercise" of looking at what infrastructure the communities, themselves, need.

"Both within their communities and the connectivity, especially around roads and energy corridors, [they] could then potentially serve other interests that represent a longer-term economic opportunity," he said. "One of them may be focusing on a corridor for prosperity, so a road, instead of talking about a massive development."

"Many of the economic development opportunities are around the legacy infrastructure pieces like creating electrification corridors, hydro corridors and perhaps roads, all-season roads to communities."

Once those are built, Rickford said, industry and communities can then talk about specific projects.

"We'll continue to move as full partners on any decisions that are made with respect to development in any way shape or form with the communities in any given region," he said.

Atlookan said she remains suspicious that industrial development is at the forefront of the government's agenda.

"Ultimately that's what this road ... is about, it's not so much about us," she said. "You're cutting red tape so that you can move this along real quickly."

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story said the meeting happened on Tuesday. In fact, it was Wednesday.
    Nov 25, 2018 2:41 PM ET

With files from Jody Porter