by Kelly McCaffery
Aboriginal protests over mining claims in the Big Trout lake area of Ontario landed six Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) elders (including the chief and deputy chief) in jail facing a six-month sentence for contempt of court. They spent over two months in jail before finally being released in May. Their lawyer Chris Reid said, “The only way these people are going to be able to get out of jail, stay out of jail, is if the government of Ontario recognizes the right of these communities to say no to mining on their land.”
The Ontario Mining Act of 1873 stipulates that anyone over the age of 18 can obtain a prospector’s license and stake mineral claims throughout the province. This outdated law does nothing toa protect the people or the environment from high-powered interest in natural resources.
Platinex, Inc., a Toronto-based Canadian mining company, has great interest in the land as potential source of revenue and has been trying to access deposits in the disputed area for nine years. Specifically, the company is in search of two very lucrative resources: platinum and palladium. Both play important roles in the production of very efficient “fuel cells” which can convert the energy of a chemical reaction into electricity and heat.
For platinum in particular, demand has increased but supplies are limited. Over 90% of the world’s platinum supply comes from only two locations in Russia and South Africa. Mining for platinum is complex, labour intensive, and costly. However, this very precious metal has numerous industrial applications and as a result of the push toward a “greener” approach to energy, there is a great deal of interest in research and development worldwide to the tune of over a billion dollars annually.
Michael Gravelle, Northern Development and Mines Minister says the Liberal government wants to properly consult with First Nations and make changes in mining laws. The government, however, is not ready to prevent mining companies from staking claims in the meantime.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant called the court’s decision to finally release the KI leaders “a positive resolution” that “respects the rule of law and allows good faith negotiations to prevail.” Bryant declared that he was anxious to move forward and said the aboriginal leaders should never have been jailed in the first place.
Despite the minister’s statement, Reid insists the government is “completely useless” having “done absolutely nothing” including not responding to calls and e-mails.
Six Nations recently began talks with government negotiators discussing ways to resolve conflict over land claims in southern Ontario, but those talks have temporarily stalled. Six Nations chose to take an undetermined amount of time away from the table to consider a settlement offer regarding the construction of the Welland Canal. In 1829, that land belonged to First Nations but was flooded to build a canal. Six Nations rejected a $26 Million dollar offer from the federal government saying it wasn’t nearly enough. According to their calculations based on federal interest rates and historical promises made to them, Six Nations says the tab comes to at least $1 billion.
A federal negotiator, Ron Doering admitted, “These are issues that go back a couple of hundred years almost.” Although there is no date set for talks to resume, he is hopeful that talks could be concluded in September if meetings start again by August. “If we don’t make it, it’s not the end of the world,” he said.
In response to the recess, Ontario’s Aboriginal Affairs agrees, “It is positive and appropriate that they are taking the time they need to further consider this serious offer. In the interim, various side table negotiations are continuing their work.”
Bob Lovelace, an elder of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation in eastern Ontario, was serving a six-month sentence in maximum security for his peaceful protest against uranium mining in his Ardoch homeland when the leaders of the KI Nation were arrested. In support of the KI Six, he chose to go on a hunger strike during his stay in solitary confinement. Lovelace was eventually also released from prison.
In his own words, he illuminates the issue at hand, “Politicians, guided by the power of the privileged class, promise that the dream of perpetual affluence is still possible. It is not. For millions of human beings, impoverished and separated from their indigenous relationship with the land, the proof is clear: Development as defined by colonial nations of this world is merely theft and murder and when we bring it on ourselves, it is suicide.”