“If I have to hop on a bulldozer myself, we’re going to start building roads to the Ring of Fire.” Doug Ford, 2018
“It cannot take us 12 to 15 years to open a mine in this country. Not if we want to achieve our ultimate goals.” Jonathan Wilkinson, Federal Natural Resources Minister, 2023
“If we don’t protect our lands, if we don’t protect our future, no one will! Nothing will happen without our Free, Prior and Informed Consent.” Chief Chris Moonias of Neskantaga First Nation, 2023
Two powerful coalitions of Northern Ontario Indigenous Nations are pushing back against unilateral decision-making over natural resources by the Ontario and federal governments.
On September 27, the Land Alliance coalition of five First Nations will lead a large march in Toronto calling on Premier Ford to end mining activity in their Territories in violation of their right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent. SCAN! and many other organizations will march to send Ford the message that many Ontarians support Indigenous Rights.
Earlier this summer, another coalition of ten Indigenous nations in Treaty 9 territory in Northern Ontario, including three of the five in the Land Alliance, launched a legal challenge that aims to seek financial damages from the Ontario and federal governments for resource wealth illegally extracted from their territories and to restore Indigenous sovereignty over Treaty 9 territory. The territory covers about 330,000 sq. kms. – larger than the U.K. and Ireland combined.
Why are the Ontario and federal governments pushing to open up Treaty 9 territory for mining and other resource extraction?
- As a resource-based economy, much of Canada’s & Ontario’s wealth historically has been based on extraction from traditional Indigenous territories – furs, cod, forests, minerals and fossil fuels.
- Governments and mining companies are mainly interested in minerals in a section of Treaty 9 territory they have dubbed the “Ring of Fire,” a name made up by a mining promoter to attract investor and government interest in mining
- Profits to be made by developing scarce minerals critical to the energy transition – for solar, wind, batteries and electric vehicles – are projected to soar
- Governments sell the urgency of mining critical minerals by claiming it is a solution to the climate crisis – a “strategy” to leverage the development of domestic electric vehicle and renewable energy industries. This greenwashing conceals both a deeply flawed industrial strategy and the violation of Indigenous Rights
- Both the Ontario and federal governments are fast-tracking environmental assessments for infrastructure and mining. Ontario has already issued about 26,000 mineral claims to 15 companies and individuals, most without consent by indigenous Nations
What’s at stake for Indigenous Peoples in Treaty 9 Territory?
- Indigenous Peoples know Treaty 9 territory as “Yehewi Aski” and “Bakitanaamowin Aki” — or the Breathing Lands. The land, water, wildlife and forests have sustained their traditional way of life and culture from time immemorial. Most of the resource wealth extracted since the 1905 Treaty 9 was signed has been taken by settler companies and governments, resulting in the impoverishment of Indigenous Nations. Compensation for damages to their territories since 1905 is required to develop sustainable Indigenous economies.
- Any industrial development without their consent is a threat to Indigenous Peoples’ traditional way of life. Effective recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and rights in the territory, including Free, Prior, and Informed Consent to all development proposals, is the essential framework for the flourishing of Indigenous life.
- The Land Alliance March’s main demand is that the Ford government endOntario’s antiquated “free entry” mining system that allows companies and individuals to stake mining claims on First Nations lands without gaining the consent of the Indigenous people who live there. The claims currently grant the prospector a wide range of rights under Crown law to explore the area for valuable minerals and to own the treasures that are found under the ground.
What’s at stake for the planet and all its inhabitants?
- The peatlands in Treaty 9 territory are one of the world’s largest intact fossil carbon storehouses. Resource development risks releasing CO2 from the peatlands through permafrost thawing, further compromising Canada’s and Ontario’s emissions reduction commitments. Given the lack of scientific research on peatlands, it could also risk a catastrophic CO2 release
- Indigenous knowledges, for example the enshrinement of a relationship of balance and reciprocity with all life, are essential to developing the transformative ecological solutions needed to deal with the climate crisis.
- “A win for the (First) Nations is a win for us all. This case will be a game-changer as the Nations demand their right to self-determination to protect the lands and waters that give us all life.” (Raven)
What are the 10 Indigenous Nations seeking in their court challenge ?
They are asking the court:
- To issue injunctions to stop any resource-related permitting before Indigenous consent is given.
- To provide compensation for damages caused by over a century of resource extraction.
- To recognize a legal requirement that First Nations must give their Free, Prior, and Informed Consent to any development in Treaty No. 9 territory.
What groundbreaking legal argument is being made in the court challenge?
Kate Kempton and Tara Macdonald, lead lawyers for the case, provided background on the court challenge at a September 21 webinar sponsored by Raven, a B.C.-based organization which is doing fundraising and educational work about the case.
The background is well summarized on the Raven website:
The 10 Nations are asking the court to recognize that their own Indigenous laws, protocols, and governance authority (jurisdiction) still apply.
The heart of the case is the interpretation of Treaty No. 9. as it concerns co-jurisdiction. The written version of Treaty No. 9 says that First Nations under the Treaty must “cede, release, surrender, or yield up their rights to the land.” This interpretation contradicts what the Plaintiff Nations understood when signing the Treaty. Evidence of the oral agreement that was reached shows that Indigenous leaders agreed to share the land with settlers, so long as they preserved bimaadiziwin in Ojibwe or pimaatisiium in Cree — happiness, prosperity, and protection of their traditional way of life.
This case aims to prove that an interpretation of Treaty No. 9 as an agreement for co-jurisdiction — not surrender — of lands means that today, Indigenous Nations must play a meaningful role in determining the fate of their homelands.
Oral history and testimony from Indigenous Peoples from the plaintiff Nations will be used to prove how the written terms of Treaty No. 9 do not represent what was negotiated and agreed to in the early 20th century. The evidence shows that the settler governments determined the written text of the Treaty before meeting with the Indigenous signatories to Treaty No. 9 and the written text does not reflect what was discussed or agreed to.
Expert reports and research by historians, biologists, ecologists, anthropologists, and lawyers will be needed in the Breathing Lands court case. The work of expert reports and evidence collection will also contribute to efforts in revitalizing Anishinaabe (Ojibway), Oji-Cree, Algonquin, and Cree cultures for future generations.
What would a win for the Breathing Lands case achieve?
This case will be a game-changer in terms of how decision-making happens in northern Ontario. A win for the Plaintiff Nations would create a legal requirement for Indigenous consent to any development in Treaty No. 9 territory, strengthening Indigenous sovereignty over 330,000 sq kms of land.
A legal win for the Plaintiff Nations would also give credit to what Indigenous Peoples have said all along about the numbered Treaties – that the written text is not what signatories agreed to. Indigenous signatories verbally agreed that they would share the land with settlers, not cede it. This interpretation could set a precedent for all numbered Treaty Nations, possibly resulting in greater jurisdictional powers for Indigenous Nations in about 2/3rds of Canada.
The Plaintiff Nations are breaking new ground in the growing movement for justice, equitable resource sharing, and environmental protection: their victory will uphold Indigenous rights and achieve climate justice for future generations.
Kate and Tara, the lead lawyers, emphasized that the “co-jurisdiction” argument, by asserting that indigenous sovereignty, laws, governance & jurisdiction still apply, is a fundamental challenge to colonialism, in which the Crown has ultimate sole jurisdiction and decision-making power.
As Kate and Tara said, to succeed in dismantling the legal foundations of colonialism will need organized power in the streets by Indigenous Peoples and settler allies in addition to court challenges. That lesson is in action this Fall in the calls for solidarity from Indigenous Peoples to join the September 27 Land Alliance March as well as to support the groundbreaking court challenge.
It is crucial we work towards building a just and equitable treaty relationship with Indigenous Peoples with the mutual goal of an equitable flourishing of all life on a livable plant earth. For more on the March for the Land, look here. See also this background on the Treaty 9 court challenge.
*Click the button below to view or download a list of additional resources.
John Huot is co-chair of SCAN!’s Indigenous Solidarity Committee.
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