Lessons Learned from the KI6 Trial

Lessons Learned from the KI6 Trial

June 4, 2008 – By Chris Webb
http://www.firstperspective.ca

Seven indigenous leaders from North West Ontario who were jailed for protecting their land were released on May 28. Their case caused national embarrassment for the Ontario provincial government and revealed just how easy it is for companies to mine on First Nation’s land without their permission.

The six from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation -plus Bob Lovelace from Ardoch Algonquin First Nation-were charged with disobeying court orders in an ongoing dispute with mining companies Platinex Inc and Frontenac Ventures. Companies that they say did not consult with their communities before beginning invasive mining. Despite Canada’s highest court insisting that consultation must taker place, many mining companies fail to do so. The KI6 and Lovelace were released after two months of their sentence and all charges have been stayed, including fines.

Frontenac Ventures announced on Monday that they would be dropping all charges against Lovelace and six other protestors who disobeyed a court order to stay away from a prospective uranium mining site.

All of the imprisoned received immense public support from both indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. The Tragically Hip even dedicated a song to Lovelace during a February concert. A huge public rally in Queen’s Park coincided with their trial, and letters of support for the accused poured in. They received support from such high-profile Canadians as Margaret Atwood, Stephen Lewis and Sarah Harmer, who signed a letter-along with 20 other prominent Canadians-to Premier Dalton McGuinty calling for their release and an end to mining on their land.

Debate in the provincial legislature on the National Aboriginal Day of Action-one day after the KI6 appeal trial-highlighted how serious the case was and what it could mean for future indigenous relations with the McGuinty government. Provincial NDP leader Howard Hampton claimed the McGunity liberals brought on the day of action early by not consulting and accommodating first nations. “Two months after requesting that the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug leadership be hit with penalties that hurt, suddenly, the McGuinty government reversed their position,” he said. “Instead of forcing grandmothers and respected First Nation leaders to spend two months in jail, why didn’t the McGuinty government use the tools at your disposal, use section 35 of the Mining Act to declare that the disputed lands were not subject to mining exploration, and save everybody the embarrassment?”

The Ontario Mining Act is fraught with problems for indigenous communities. It operates under a free-entry system that allows mining companies free access to Crown Land-like those surrounding KI-without prior consultation.

The government constantly misreads public opinion says Joan Kuyek, National Coordinator for Miningwatch Canada. “We’re absolutely thrilled the KI6 and Lovelace have been released, but what needs to change is the Mining Act.” Kuyek proposes a permit system that forces companies and government to consult and accommodate indigenous communities and give them the right to say no. “This isn’t just an issue of changing the act,” she says, “It’s changing how laws work in this country.”

As protestors gathered on the lawn in front of the legislature last Thursday calling for indigenous land rights and treaties to be respected, Premier McGuinty acknowledged their presence but never said why he hadn’t done more to protect their land from mining and their leaders from jail. His minister of Aboriginal Affairs Michael Bryant said the jailing ought never to have happened, “and it is fortunate that now it is over for chief and council. The member is absolutely right: They never should have gone to jail.”

But words that echo through provincial council chambers have done little to change the way business is done on indigenous lands.

Chris Reid, lawyer for Lovelace and the KI6, reported after the trial that the root cause of the trial is “the Mining Act and the province’s almost obsessive attachment to the mining industry and the free entry system.” He added that although the appeal trial judges did not give reasons for their judgment, they seemed troubled by “Ontario’s rigid refusal to negotiate or to consider the possibility of FNs having a right to say no to mining.”

The case of the KI6 will be a lesson to future Ontario provincial governments in their dealings with indigenous communities. Any move to reform the Mining Act or improvement in the consultation process should be encouraged, but it should not be the only step. Dialogue needs to happen federally and locally within the affected communities. But in order for this to happen, treaties need to be respected, land claims need to be negotiated, and the sovereignty and interests of indigenous communities must be upheld.

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