“We won’t be ignored” challenge Matawa Chiefs

Respect for First Nations key to economic progress
Lisa Dumontier

Regional First Nation leaders held a press conference in Ottawa last week to express their ongoing concerns regarding resource development in their traditional territory.

Unsupportive of consultation-free development of Northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire region, Matawa First Nations sent a strong message to parliament on November 07, 2011 by filing a Judicial Review against the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) regarding the Canadian Environmental Assessment (EA) for the Cliffs Chromite project. Looking to put a stop to the Comprehensive Study EA slated to begin later this month, the Matawa Chiefs believe that while a Comprehensive Study EA will fast track the Environmental assessment process for the government and the resource company, it will put First Nation communities in the mineral-heavy area at serious risk.

“For over five years our Chiefs have been insisting that the CEAA move to a negotiated Joint Review Panel EA process. We are remote communities with no capacity to respond to a Comprehensive Study EA. In order to participate we need adequate funding and expertise which none of our First Nations have received,” said Aroland First Nation Chief Sonny Gagnon. “We want to work with the government and the companies to participate in this process. A negotiated Joint Review Panel EA is the way to do that.”

Located in Matawa First Nations homelands in Northern Ontario approximately 540 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, the Ring of Fire development area is home to roughly 40 mining and exploration companies who have staked claims in an effort to capitalise on the area’s rich metal and mineral deposits. Pegged to drive Ontario’s economy for decades, development of the Ring of Fire has pushed forward at a rapid rate and is threatening to wipe out a large portion of Canada’s remaining boreal forest with—according to the Matawa Chiefs—limited consultation from the communities who have traditionally called the area home.

“These are homelands and traditional territories. We will feel the impacts of this mine for years to come,” noted Peter Moonias, Neskantaga First Nation Chief. “We want development, but we don’t want another Alberta tar sands situation in our backyards and on our homelands. We have to have the best environmental assessment process currently available in order to safeguard our people, our children, the land, the waterways, and the wildlife, now and into the future.”

“We need to talk about the environment in a forum that respects our knowledge of the land, our oral tradition and our decision making process,” he added.

The Chiefs’ request to move forward with a Joint Review Panel Environmental Assessment Process was turned down by the CEAA in late October and the group of nine First Nations were still waiting for a response to their request that a Memorandum of Agreement on First Nation participation and involvement in the EA process be developed when they learned that the CEAA was moving forward with the EA process for the chromite mine which had already been turned down once before because of its potential impact on the environment.

Matawa First Nations is now hoping that the judicial review process will overturn that decision and has found support for their movement with environmental groups, lobbyists and First Nation leaders across Canada who agree that all environmental risks must be considered thoroughly before exploration work gets any further underway.

“First Nations are not opposed to development, but not at any cost,” said Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in support of the Matawa Chiefs. “We want to see environmentally sound community development that respects our rights, reflects our relationship to the land, our resources, and our traditions. The international community recognizes that the path towards economic progress for everyone rests on the principals of respect, transparency, and consent. If Canada wants to promote new mining ventures, it must allow the environmental review process to do what it was designated to do by listening to the people who will inherit the costs and benefits of projects in their communities.”

“We believe that if the people of Ontario and Canada understood the scope of the Ring of Fire projects they would be calling on the Federal Government to the very best environmental assessment possible,” added Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse. “That would include a negotiated process with meaningful First Nation participation.”

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