The four native men who walked to Toronto across Ontario's vast northern expanse didn't get the publicity that the protesters at Caledonia did. This is a great pity because the issues that drove these guys to walk 2,000 kilometres at the height of black-fly season are just as compelling as the dispute over a subdivision near Brantford.
The marchers were from the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, a remote fly-in community of about 1,200 people, 580 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. The crystal-clear lake where the reserve sits is surrounded by hundreds of thousands of hectares of old-growth forest that has never seen a bulldozer or chainsaw. And this is the nub of the problem.
The region is the traditional home of the KI people, who havhunted, fished and trapped on it for countless generations. But it is also a source of enormous mineral and forest wealth and the pressure to exploit this is growing much faster than the Ontario government's ability to deal with the potential explosive conflicts that could be sparked by development.
The KI marchers went to Queen's Park last week to raise awareness about their community's dispute with a mining company and to criticize the government for failing to revise its mining laws in line with recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions requiring governments to consult with aboriginals before treaty lands are developed.
KI is fighting Platinex Inc., which is seeking an injunction to stop the reserve from blocking its access to a drilling site across the lake from the reserve. The Toronto-area company staked a claim eight years ago and it believes it is sitting on one of the largest platinum deposits in North America. But it was forced to stop exploratory drilling last winter when KI residents blockaded the site.
The battle has highlighted just how unprepared Ontario is for the new era. In the old days, anybody could stake a claim on Crown land, buy a licence and begin drilling or digging. But a series of court judgments in the past decade -- the latest in November -- have included aboriginals in this process. Ontario has been slow to react and KI is filling the breach.
Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay, who is also responsible for aboriginal issues, tried to smooth things in Big Trout Lake on Tuesday, when he presented to a meeting of Ontario chiefs a draft of the guidelines that ministries should use in consulting natives. He emphasized the government's desire to consult, but nonetheless was criticized by some chiefs.
KI Chief Donny Morris agreed with the reserve's lawyer that the document is "a day late and a dollar short" and argued that natives should have been consulted on the guidelines instead of simply being asked to comment on them. Grand Chief Stan Beardy of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (which represents 49 reserves across two-thirds of Ontario) was annoyed that Mr. Ramsay was not providing the funds that native governments needed to take up his invitation to hone the guidelines.
There was also a fundamental anger that Ontario is refusing to join a native call for a moratorium on further development of the pristine lands north of the 51st parallel. That line, which is supposed to mark the limit of widespread development, was drawn by a royal commission nearly 30 years ago. But there is intense pressure, particularly from the $7-billion mining industry, to erase it to get at the mineral wealth. There are 4,976 "unpatented" mining claims and 862 "leased" claims in the region. This month, for example, Premier Dalton McGuinty blessed a $980-million diamond mine in remote Attawapiskat.
"There's hardly a spot of NAN territory that hasn't had some exploration interest expressed," said Ontario New Democratic Party Leader Howard Hampton, who addressed the chiefs here in his riding Wednesday.
Aboriginals insist that they are not opposed to development, but that their interpretation of their treaty rights is different from the government's. They want a say in how development is done and a share of the revenues.
"Canada gets something, Ontario gets something but what do I get but $4 a year?" said Chief Morris of the payments from the Crown guaranteed under the treaty but unaffected by inflation. "I just need an equal share to what both the other governments make."