This past weekend, I went moose hunting with First Nations youth in Treaty No. 9 territory. Every fall, if we are lucky enough, we head out on the land, where we learn our language and our traditions, and it reminds us who we are. As we walked during the hunt, it was devastating to come across vast sections of land that were completely barren – clear-cut by forestry companies.
With us was Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler who, until he lost cell service, took call after call on the COVID-19 crisis. The virus had made its way into four of NAN’s 49 First Nations communities – the most it has infiltrated since the pandemic began. And it has compounded the mental-health crisis gripping the north: Since January, there have been 16 suicides in NAN territory, with seven of the lives lost between 13 and 18 years old.
From the start of this pandemic, Grand Chief Fiddler has had to mobilize a public-health response out of thin air, in communities without access to clean running water, without doctors or nurses or properly stocked health clinics. He’s had to do this because there are no functioning health systems in most Northern Ontario First Nations. That reality is born from colonization; Canada’s health care system wasn’t built with First Nations in mind.
Despite reassuring pronouncements in Wednesday’s Throne Speech, the reality is stark: Governments are going to need to figure out how they will pay for the colossal nationwide debt generated by COVID-19. And in the devastated forest and in our people’s devastating experiences lie the same old story, even if it’s told through the new lens of an extraordinary pandemic: Every time Canada finds itself in an economic catastrophe, it reverts to some of its most destructive colonial habits – with First Nations people paying the price.
One only has to look at Ontario’s omnibus Bill 197, the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, which was rammed through in less than two weeks without public consultation in July. That bill turns Ontario’s entire Environmental Assessment Act on its head, by deeming that, in order to help smooth the way for businesses, industrial or development projects will no longer require environmental assessments to proceed. Cabinet can request assessments for projects (though there are also currently no clear rules for what should be included in an assessment), but what Conservative minister would stand in the way of resource development?
It was not lost on any of us, either, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood shoulder to shoulder with Ontario Premier Doug Ford last week at the groundbreaking ceremony of a Sudbury gold mine. Ontario’s omnibus bill is part of a deeper economic recovery plan to, as Mr. Ford describes, lay the foundation to restart jobs and development while creating opportunity for all.
But Bill 197 is an underhanded colonial move that ignores Section 35 of the Constitution, which affirms First Nations treaty rights. Ontario seems to have forgotten it is a signatory to Treaty No. 9, which stretches up from the Robinson-Superior Treaty, west to the Manitoba border, north to Hudson Bay and east to James Bay.
Treaties are the laws of the land; they do not, in themselves, surrender sovereignty. If there is any doubt, look at the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which promised that the Crown would respect Indigenous sovereignty. Lawmakers often seem to forget this exists in the legal chaos created by colonization – and Canada has benefited from it for generations.
But while Ontario tries to slip through its own agenda under the guise of the COVID-19 emergency, First Nations leaders are consumed with just trying to keep people alive.
“There will be pressure on our communities to open up, but the chiefs need to know they are in charge of their territory,” Grand Chief Fiddler said. “Ontario and Ottawa are no longer holding the purse strings. Their coffers are empty.”
So First Nations have been left with no choice but to use the courts to speak to Ontario with their own laws – the only language the province seems to understand. On Tuesday, groups representing more than 10 First Nations filed a court challenge against Ontario’s omnibus bill.
To be clear, First Nations people are not opposed to development. But irresponsible, reckless development will not be supported. Indigenous law makes us the rightful stewards of the land, protecting it for future generations.
Ontario is home to one of the last intact areas of boreal forest, a giant carbon storehouse and producer of oxygen. As the planet warms, the boreal must be protected, and on this front, First Nations are fighting to protect all of Canada’s children. It would be good, then, if we were all on the same team.
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