Native Rights And Forests Chewed Into Dust

I was moved to hear in the longhouse of the Six Nations Confederacy an effort by the revered Cayuga environmentalist, the late Norm Jacobs, to have the courts defend treaties and the land. He explained that if treaties that protect the land are not enforced, Native rights will simply be ground into the dust by those who seek to exploit our traditional territories for profit.

During the last days of the deep cold winter of 2015, one of the worst examples I have seen of Jacobs’ warnings took place. Fifty acres of forest were ground into sawdust in defiance of our treaties that seek to defend the land. A great refuge for deer and their natural predators, the coyote, in the heart of the built up area of greater Toronto was chewed into a mess by chipping machines. Trees that were donated by Ontario government nurseries for reforestation became sawdust for the schemes of a development company: Corsica Developments.


Author Danny Beaton (second from left) protesting the desecration of the Dunlap Forest.

What makes the devastation so insulting to the good mind of traditional people is that the fifty acre forest to be razed (about half of a larger woodland slightly over one hundred acres, which may be later cut up for turf playgrounds) was created in order to compensate for some of the damage done by “pioneer” invaders of the land. Their greed saw the forest burned down to clear farms and to obtain quick cash for potash used to manufacture soap. The Oak Ridges Moraine just north of this forest was turned into a desert wasteland, and blowing sands threatened to bury Toronto. At the same time, the rivers that flowed into Toronto (notably the Don, which has its headwaters close to these lands) experienced massive floods. This led to 88 deaths in November, 1954 from Hurricane Hazel. For this reason, under the leadership of visionary astronomers such as Clarence Chant who used the restored forest as a barrier from light pollution from the newly built David Dunlap Observatory (where black holes were discovered), the site was gradually reforested from 1939 to 1980.

An environmental protection group, the Richmond Hill Naturalists, whose existence is now threatened by demands for an award of costs by the developer, went through three hearings to defend the land. This lead to a bill for expert witnesses fees and lawyers in excess of $500,000. At the most significant of these hearings, one by the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) on zoning, the Native band that considers these lands part of their traditional territory attempted to become a party to the hearing.

On July 21, 2013, Karlene J. Hussey (a Vice Chair of the OMB) issued a ruling that assaulted Native rights and ultimately doomed the land. In her decision, which put a residential official plan designation on close to fifty acres of forest, Hussey denied a request by Carol King, the authorized representative of the Mississaugas of the New Credit. King’s request sought an adjournment of the hearing on an “urgent basis,” so that the band would have time to develop a case to defend the threatened forest.

Hussey rejected the Mississaugas’ plea for the earth on the basis that it was “prejudicial” to the interests of Corsica. She also told the band to involve itself in the later “proper process associated with the zoning amendment necessary to implement this development.”

How Hussey cunningly misdirected the Ojibway nation to a dead end is seen by the subsequent decision regarding the zoning amendment. This was issued by OMB hearing officer J. E. Snienek on December 11, 2014, shortly after a protest walk around the perimeter of the threatened forest by the Toronto Field Naturalists.

In his decision, Snienek argued that no matter how compelling the testimony was from the various expert witnesses he heard who argued that more forest should be saved, it was all worthless. He ruled that the issue of forest protection had been decided by Hussey’s hearing and that further efforts to save it constituted inappropriate “re-litigation.” It is on this basis that the zoning hearings were irrelevant, and Corsica is attempting to recover $200,000 in legal costs from the Richmond Hill Naturalists. If even a small portion of these costs were awarded by the OMB, the organization that was worked for a half a century to protect the environment in Richmond Hill would be forced to disband.

In Hussey’s hearing, the naturalists hired an archeological expert to present testimony about traditional Native use of the land. This report was never defended by the expert witness, on the basis of the decision of the Naturalists’ legal counsel. Also barred from the OMB was a lengthy report by historian Dr. John Bacher, PhD. He is the author of the history of reforestation in Ontario: Two Billion Trees and Counting: the Legacy of Edmund Zavitz.

In his barred report, Bacher wrote that the David Dunlap Forest was one “of the most successful examples of an ecologically restored landscape” north of Toronto and south of the Oak Ridges Moraine. He explained, “Today, it is very important that historically, as well as functionally, this site remains as a legacy to the past and a reminder to our future of the importance to protect watersheds and give us all the benefits that trees bring to our communities.” To prepare his anticipated testimony, Bacher visited Boston to view the Arnold Arboretum, a forested park that provided the model for the creation of the David Dunlap Forest. He found it was part of a “chain of parks whose principal goal was pollution control through a network of settling ponds and constructed wetlands similar to innovative conservationist thinking today.”

Shortly after the barring of Bacher’s testimony, a massive flood of the Don River hit Toronto. Although past reforestation such as that of the Dunlap Forest helped to diminish floods by increasing forest cover, this wise legacy of the past is being undermined by spectacles such as the Richmond Hill chipper massacre. With the disruptions caused by climate change, the earth is posed to take a horrible flooding revenge for the destruction of one of Canada’s biggest urban forests.

~ Danny Beaton, Turtle Clan Mohawk []