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Supreme Court of Canada rules against Grassy Narrows in logging rights case

BY LINDSAY BRISCOE

In a unanimous 7-0 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on July 10 that the province of Ontario does not need the federal government’s permission to issue industrial logging permits on a First Nation’s traditional lands.

“Ontario has the power to take up lands in the Keewatin area under Treaty 3 without federal approval or supervision,” Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin wrote in the ruling.

The July 10 decision was based on a challenge by Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabauskang First Nation to an Ontario Court of Appeal 2013 decision that determined the province has the right to “take up” Treaty land for industrial projects like forestry and mining.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is inconsistent with our understanding of our Treaty relationship,” said Wabauskang Chief Martine Petiquan in a July 10 statement. “Our Treaty is with Canada. It is Canada that is responsible for fulfilling the promises made to the people of Treaty 3.”

Grassy Narrows First Nation trapper Shoon Keewatin was disappointed with the outcome, but said he wasn’t really expecting any different because “the province will get to do what it wants to do” anyway.

Keewatin has been maintaining his family’s trap line for the past two decades or so since his father stopped being able to do so, but says he has memories of being pulled around in a sled on the trap line as a toddler.

And he remembers when logging activity first started to happen on Treaty 3 land.

“When I first noticed what was going on around the trap line, I could hear machines way off in the distance. You couldn’t see anything from the shoreline,” he said in an July 10 interview with The Northern Sun News. “As years went by, you know, as we were driving around the trap line by boat and by vehicle, we started to notice a lot of the land had been cut over. Then we started to see clear cuts right from the shore. That was when we felt it was too much.”

He says he’s not against logging all together, just clear cut logging.

“There’s some parts of my trap line where there’s spruce, there’s jack pine, there’s poplar, there’s all kinds of trees, there’s the underbrush. Before a clear cut, there were two canopies. The underbrush was eight feet tall or ten feet tall, and the tree canopy was 20 or 30 feet. You just have the brush up to your knees now, nothing else. There’s all these planted trees all in rows.”

“I always said to Abitibi (now Resolute Forest Products), ‘you know exactly how long a tree takes to grow. You know how much it’ll grow in 20 years. You don’t know what kind of animals will come back in 20 years,’” he added.

For Shoon Keewatin, trapping is not a means of income. He traps because it’s crucial to maintaining his Anishinaabe identity. It’s a tradition he’d like to pass on to his children.

While the Keewatin trial dealt with forestry, the implications of the court’s decision are far-reaching and will affect how other industries like mining and pipelines can be carried out on Treaty land in the province.

Bruce McIvor, Wabauskang First Nation’s lawyer on the Keewatin case, weighed in on the decision later in the day on July 10.

“(Today’s) Grassy Narrows decision places a heavy legal burden on provincial governments when they seek to exploit Indigenous lands covered by the historical treaties of Canada. The challenge now is for First Nations to hold the provinces to account.”

Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Roger Fobister and Wabauskang First Nation Chief Petiquan have both said they intend to continue the fight to protect their Treaty rights and people.

“We expect the government of Ontario and Canada to learn from the last ten years and come to the table ready to deal with the real needs of our people which requires ensuring a sustainable future both environmentally and economically,” Chief Fobister said in a statement.

Ontario Minister of Natural Resources and Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP Bill Mauro has said his ministry will be looking over the decision to understand its full implications for the province.

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