Native leaders from a remote Northwestern Ontario reserve were sent to jail in handcuffs yesterday for opposing mining on their traditional lands, as an opposition leader blamed the Ontario government for failing to resolve the conflict.
Chief Donny Morris, deputy chief Jack McKay and four band councillors each received six-month sentences for contempt of court from the Ontario Superior Court in Thunder Bay.
It was the second time this year that aboriginal leaders have been jailed in Ontario over mining blockades.
The incarcerated leaders are gaining support from a wide spectrum of activists, including human-rights groups, American environmentalists and even the Kingston-based rock group the Tragically Hip.
Moreover, the umbrella group representing native reserves across Ontario's North said that it is severing all talks with the province in light of yesterday's development.
The six people sentenced yesterday are from the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (also known as KI or Big Trout Lake) First Nation, about 600 km north of Thunder Bay.
The natives are in a dispute with Platinex Inc., an exploratory drilling company, which holds more than 220 mining claims in the area to look for platinum deposits.
The court issued an order last fall allowing Platinex to begin drilling, but when company representatives landed in Big Trout Lake on Nov. 6, natives and an aboriginal OPP officer threatened to arrest them if they proceeded, Mr. Justice George Smith said yesterday.
"If two systems of law are allowed to exist - one for the aboriginals and one for the non-aboriginals - the rule of law will disappear and be replaced by chaos," he said.
A few hours later in the Ontario Legislature, New Democratic Party Leader Howard Hampton blamed the court decision on the McGuinty government's "complete and utter failure" to consult aboriginal communities about mineral exploration.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant said he has visited KI every month this year in an effort to negotiate a resolution.
"The finding [yesterday]obviously is extremely disappointing," Mr. Bryant said.
The Platinex mining claims are not on reserve land, but rather the larger traditional native lands. The company has said it tried to involve KI in the process and offered financial compensation.
Chris Reid, who represents both aboriginal communities that were found in contempt, said natives in Big Trout Lake are vowing to maintain their opposition even though the court case has brought them close to bankruptcy.
"No way are they backing down," Mr. Reid said. "What they've been saying is they'll have to put the whole community in jail - 1,300 people."
Last month, Paula Sherman and Robert Lovelace, co-chiefs of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, were sentenced to six months in jail for contempt of court in similar circumstances. Chief Lovelace was also fined $25,000 and Chief Sherman $15,000. Chief Sherman avoided jail time by promising to stop protesting against uranium prospecting north of Kingston.
The incarceration of Chief Lovelace, a professor at Queen's University, was noted by Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie during a recent concert in their hometown of Kingston.
"Here's one for Bob Lovelace," he told the crowd, before playing the song It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken.
With a report from Karen Howlett in Toronto