A Muskoka-region First Nation is planning a last-ditch attempt to save a historic portage route in Bala, Ont., which has been at the centre of a fight between residents and an energy company building a $27-million water power plant.
The Wahta Mohawks First Nation is set to portage from the Moon River landing to Lake Muskoka in protest against the hydro plant. They say they were not adequately consulted during the review of the project – awarded to Swift River Energy in 2005 – as is required by law, and they are requesting the plans be stopped in lieu of further discussions with Ottawa and Ontario.
The protest comes a little more than a month after the Township of Muskoka Lakes lost an Ontario Court of Appeal bid to have the government recognize the public's right to portage a historic canoe route at Bala Falls.
The Wahta Mohawks are using Thursday's demonstration to highlight the important role canoeing played in their arrival to Ontario: The First Nation came to Muskoka from Quebec in 1881 using the Bala portage.
"We teach our people about how we got here in the Bala area, and they would have come off there and cross over at that point," said the First Nation's Chief, Phillip Franks.
Despite the historical significance for the Wahta Mohawks, Swift River maintains that the land is not a canoe route.
"We don't feel that this is a portage. There are other ways to get from Moon River to Lake Muskoka that are much safer," said Karen McGhee, the project manager.
Ms. McGhee said she was surprised to hear about their opposition because the First Nation had signed off on the project after their initial consultation several years back.
"We have not heard this complaint over the seven years we've been involved in this project," she said.
But Mr. Franks said concerns were recently heightened when the new council discovered Swift River's plans would impact the historic canoe route.
"Our people don't necessarily use it any more, but it's part of our history, it's kind of a heritage point," he said.
"We do feel it's important that all First Nations are able to speak up, are able to be consulted in some manner," Mr. Franks said. "We're not talking about just a phone call or a letter, we're talking about having real discussions where we can actually have the opportunity to consult with our people and the community, as well."
Mayor Alice Murphy of Muskoka Lakes has also spoken out against the project.
"Any development in Muskoka Lakes needs to meet the needs of our community, protect our way of life, environment, as well as meet economic development needs. I do not believe this project meets that test," she said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.
Ms. McGhee said Swift River's environmental assessment concluded the project would have no significant impact on "the whole gamut," including fisheries, navigation and wildlife.
The energy company is still in the process of getting a land lease for the area from the provincial Natural Resources Ministry, and construction is expected to start this fall.