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Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias, centre in green, speaks alongside First Nations community members during an improvised press conference inside the Ontario Legislature, at Queen's Park, in Toronto, on March 29. First Nations across northern Ontario have launched a lawsuit against the province and the federal government over decision-making powers.Allison Jones/The Canadian Press

A group of First Nations from Northern Ontario has filed a lawsuit against the province and Canada, asserting that they never gave up any rights to govern their own territories through its treaty agreement with the Crown, and that they will not allow any decisions about their lands to be made without their full consultation and consent, including resource projects.

Ten First Nations from Treaty 9 territory in Northern Ontario – an area that covers two-thirds of the province – allege in the lawsuit that Ontario and Canada make unilateral decisions without the full participation of the First Nations as equal partners and decision makers.

Kate Kempton, one of the lawyers representing the First Nations, said Treaty 9 First Nations never agreed to give up governance of their land to the Crown, represented by provincial and federal governments.

“It’s been a fraud committed by the Crown governments for the last 120 years in Ontario,” Ms. Kempton told media at Queen’s Park on Wednesday.

Ms. Kempton said while it may take more than 10 years for the case to go to trial, the lawsuit will enable them to bring motions to seek injunctions under it to stop alleged unilateral decision-making, “especially where those decisions threaten the way of life of the First Nations.” Those threats include “things that may destroy the peatlands, which are locally necessary up in James Bay, Hudson Bay to prevent worsening, catastrophic climate change.”

Ontario and Canada have 60 days to file a statement of defence to the lawsuit.

Ms. Kempton said the First Nations never agreed to be subjects of the Crown when the treaty was signed in 1905.

The Crown “inserted language in the written texts of the treaty that they held up as saying, this is what was agreed to. They never told the First Nations about that text to sign the treaty, they never left them a copy, they never translated it, they never explained those terms. You cannot be deemed to agree to something that nobody ever told you about.”

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She said they’re asking for the treaty partners to sit down and work out the appropriate legislation that ensures equal participation at the decision-making level, but until then the First Nations say they aren’t giving their full, informed consent to the Crown, alleging it is operating “in the dark and reckless.”

“It’s not to say that nothing would ever get consented to. But it’s to say it has to be consented to by both sides,” Ms. Kempton said.

Two First Nations protesters interrupted Ontario’s Question Period on Wednesday, shouting at Premier Doug Ford about the potential Ring of Fire mineral development in northwestern Ontario, before being removed by security.

“You come to our traditional territory, get our free consent,” said Wayne Moonias, the former chief of Neskantaga First Nation. “You’re not going to bulldoze our area, you’re not going to come into our community, you’re not going to ravage our river system, you’re not going to take away our sturgeon, you’re not going to take away our moose.”

Kelvin Moonias, a member of the band council of Neskantaga, yelled: “You’re not crossing our river, no way.”

Also during Question Period, NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa of the Kiiwetinoong riding covering much of Treaty 9 territory said the province abandoned dialogue on shared decision-making years ago, and he pressed the province on whether it would respect First Nations rights.

Greg Rickford, Minister of Northern Development and Minister of Indigenous Affairs, argued that his government is already doing the work with First Nations in Treaty 9 on major legacy infrastructure projects such as the electric grid and child welfare laws. He said he’ll continue to support economic development projects by those community members and Indigenous leaders who want to ensure their communities and businesses thrive and that young people have jobs in sight.

“We’re going to support the training. We’re doing that all across Northern Ontario, and I look forward to the opportunity to work with those communities on specific projects.”

Interim Ontario Liberal Leader John Fraser said Wednesday’s events is a mess of Ontario’s making, and that a previous NDP Bob Rae government set up the framework to bring everyone together and that there had been some progress before the current government put a stop to it.

With a report from Laura Stone in Toronto

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