Thunder Bay

Matawa chiefs demand province stop all activities affecting land, treaty rights during pandemic

The Matawa Chiefs Council has issued a public statement requesting that the Ontario government stop all activities that affect the rights and interests of First Nations members while the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The Chiefs Council rejected 'imposed deadline' of Thursday to comment on proposed changes to Far North Act

Matawa Chiefs Council reject deadline imposed by Ontario government to comment of proposed changes to Far North Act, which regulates resource development and land planning in most of northern Ontario. (Matawa First Nations / Facebook)

The Matawa Chiefs Council has issued a public statement requesting that the Ontario government stop all activities that affect the rights and interests of First Nations members while the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Marten Falls First Nation Chief Bruce Achneepineskum said the move was spurred the province's declaration of a second state of emergency due to rising case numbers, and the government-imposed deadline of Thursday for comments related to proposed changes to the Far North Act.

"We felt it was a very heavy burden for our First Nations to concentrate and look at how we can be properly engaged in the [Far North] Act that they're putting forward, especially in this time of COVID," he said.

The chiefs council has raised concerns repeatedly throughout the pandemic that the Ford government has proceeded with many changes to legislation and regulations that affect their inherent Aboriginal and treaty rights, as set out by the Canadian constitution and countless Supreme Court decisions.

"Ontario has been unashamed in its aggressive approach to prepare to access the wealth and resources of the James Bay Treaty No. 9 territory and we remind Ontario that our rights are of a higher priority than the interests of government, general stakeholders and industry investors," said Eabametoong First Nation Chief Harvey Yesno.

Far North Act created in time of 'trouble on the land'

According the the province's website, the intent of the Far North Act is to create guidelines that support community-based land use planning in an area described as the "far north," that creates greater opportunity for First Nations to participate in decisions about how to protect the lands while facilitating resource development.

But a brief from the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations-led research centre, says the legislation comes from a time of "trouble on the land," after several leaders from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug were convicted of contempt of court in 2008 "for protecting their homelands from platinum mining as required under their own Indigenous laws."

Head shot of Bruce Achneepineskum sitting at a table as part of a panel discussion.
Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum says it is too much of a burden for the province to expect his community can provide comments on the proposed legislative changes. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Two years later, the government sought to resolve "the jurisdiction question," according to the brief, by claiming to protect 50 per cent of the boreal forest in northern Ontario and partnering with First Nations in decision-making and revenue-sharing, while still giving the government "the ultimate and unilateral authority to approve mining developments."

Nishnawbe Aski Nation has been opposed to the legislation since its introduction, and said in a 2019 statement that "the Act was enacted without meaningful consultation to legislate our territory under the control of the province."

Ford has had eyes set on changes to Act since election

Recent years have seen Ontario Premier Doug Ford target the Far North Act, seeking to reduce "red tape" and improve "business certainty."

In 2019, the government proposed to repeal the Act, and last year they changed tactics by deciding to propose changes that would "refocus the Act, while retaining provisions that allow for joint land use planning with all First Nations."

Harvey Yesno, chief of Eabametoong, called the Far North Act "part of the colonial control mechanisms on the homelands and economy of our People," and said any changes to the Act will "directly impact and dictate the economy and quality of life of our members." (Jody Porter/CBC News)

The government says the changes will amend or delete provisions "that are perceived as hindering economic development," and they will "enhance certain provisions that encourage collaboration between Ontario and Far North First Nations."

The proposed changes were posted on the government website on Nov. 30, 2020, and the period to provide comments lasted until Jan. 14.

But the Matawa Chiefs Council have said they reject this deadline.

"First Nations are challenged by the COVID-19 global pandemic and the compounded long-term issues in our First Nations related to housing, the cost of living and access to goods, supplies and clean water are in addition to the danger posed by the disease," said Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse.

"We need to keep the emphasis and priority on the safety and protection of our vulnerable communities and members," he added.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry did not respond to an inquiry by CBC News for comment on the chiefs council declaration.