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Standing up for Indigenous rights, in the face of various governments’ continued abdication of their commitments to treaties and international law, is a fight First Nations will never tire of.

Good thing, because the work is endless. From the militarized RCMP operations in Wet’suwet’en territory in B.C. (concerning the Coastal GasLink pipeline), to the 1492 Land Back Lane land defence in Caledonia, Ont. (a Six Nations-led effort), our peoples are both the original and present-day protectors of the land, consistently light years ahead of any climate-change movement. Sadly, our efforts to protect the environment are rarely recognized until it is too late.

The next battleground is to the north and west of Lake Superior, on the traditional territories of Treaty 9, Treaty 3 and the Robinson-Superior Treaty of 1850. It is here, in an area many Indigenous people share, where the waters of Turtle Island split and either flow north to Hudson Bay or south to urban cities. It is also the spot where the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, or NWMO, wants to send truckloads of radioactive material to be buried 500 metres deep into the Canadian Shield.

The proposed burial site is dangerously close to the sacred Arctic Watershed, as well as the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation and the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen, near Savant Lake, Ont., which are technically both part of Treaty 3. However, this is a corner of Ontario where several treaties meet, including the expansive Treaty 9 and Treaty 5 territories of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, or NAN, representing 49 First Nations in Northern Ontario. The waters, land and animals here do not see the artificial boundaries set up by those who colonized our homelands.

As NAN Grand Chief Derek Fox on Wednesday told the annual summer assembly of NAN chiefs in Timmins, Ont., authorities will have to imprison him before he, or the 49 First Nations he represents, allow the NWMO’s proposed burial of radioactive waste to happen.

“I will do all I can to stop this,” Mr. Fox said. “If I have to be the one there, getting hauled away to jail to put a stop to this, I will be there to make sure this waste does not enter into our territory.”

The Grand Chief is not the only one who will put himself on the line. All those who gathered at the chiefs’ meeting this week voted to “vehemently oppose” the NWMO’s concept of a deep geological repository near Ignace, Ont., a small town of about 1,200 people between Kenora and Thunder Bay. In addition to many health and safety concerns, and the potential for devastating environmental impacts, there is also a complete lack of consent for this repository from NAN communities.

“Why don’t they get rid of it where they made it? Northern Ontario is not a garbage can,” said Constance Lake Chief Ramona Sutherland, who noted the Ontario government also wants to mine resources worth billions of dollars in the province’s northern Ring of Fire area, one of the most ecologically important carbon storehouses left on Earth.

The pillaging of the North, which has been a consistent feature of economic recovery plans since the inception of Canada, is a tiresome, unacceptable narrative.

Northern communities already have their hands full in fighting for basic human rights – from health care to clean water to education – while governments continue to ignore their treaty obligations. All Nations impacted along the corridors and highways that will carry the radioactive waste must also now be engaged – from New Brunswick to Quebec, and through to Ontario. According to the NAN, 60 years of waste has accumulated at Canada’s nuclear sites and will require 45 years for proper disposal.

The NWMO has said the plan will only proceed through areas overseen by informed and willing hosts, where the municipality, First Nations and Métis communities are all in agreement. The NWMO appears to consider “agreement,” however, to mean a decision made by the few while ignoring the many.

The NAN chiefs’ resolution has given a mandate to its executive council to prevent NWMO and the governments of Canada and Ontario from placing any nuclear waste in NAN traditional territories. The chiefs also stated their nations will use every option they have to stop the waste disposal, including “civil protests,” “legal action” and “any other appropriate measures.”

Article 29 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says “no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of Indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.”

The Canadian government passed UNDRIP as an Act of Parliament in 2021. It should be noted that the Ontario government has refused to pass a provincial version of the legislation.

The long fight in the North is just gearing up, but its chiefs have now put Canada on notice.

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