Natives are not the victims here

Peter Foster
National Post

Friday, June 23, 2006

The standoff over aboriginal land claims in Caledonia, west of Toronto, is now declared to be cooling down. However, in failing to uphold, or moving very slowly to uphold, the law, the Ontario government has created a terrible precedent. Aboriginal groups, and those who would use them for other agendas, have been told that violence pays.

An even more important test case of the province’s willingness to uphold the law is currently under examination in a courtroom in Thunder Bay. There, a small Aurora-based exploration company, Platinex, is seeking to assert its rights to drill at a site 580 kilometres to the north, at Big Trout Lake.

In February, after years of frustrating consultations with a local native band known as the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, or KI, Platinex moved to begin exploration drilling in an area it believes may contain a major platinum deposit, 40 kilometres from the KI’s reserve. The KI had previously made a claim for unspecified additional lands under an existing treaty and had declared a “moratorium” on Platinex. They had no legal right to do so, but when Platinex turned up to begin work, it soon found itself under siege. Natives and their allies surrounded the site, blocked a public highway, sabotaged an airstrip and trashed the company’s camp. It was forced to withdraw.

To add insult to Platinex’s injury, press coverage of the affair has been stunningly one-sided. The KI are almost uniformly painted as victims with a viable legal case, while Platinex is portrayed as a potentially disruptive force that has failed to consult with the locals and even brought in “mercenaries” to assert its questionable rights. The “mercenary” in question is a mining security consultant named Paul Gladston, whose main achievement was to extricate the Platinex exploration crew without harm from a threatening situation.

CBC Sudbury made a big deal of the fact that Mr. Gladston is a “former military man,” as if such an occupation was shameful. Our national broadcaster even brought in muckraking journalist Madeleine Drohan, author of Make a Killing, a screed about the corporate use of mercenaries. “Here in Canada,” opined Ms. Drohan, “we do have institutions that are functioning, and should be able to do this without calling in some sort of mercenary from abroad.”

But that is exactly the problem. When it comes to aboriginal policy and land claims, we don’t have “institutions that are functioning.” (It is perhaps also worth mentioning that Mr. Gladston wasn’t flown in from Angola. He lives in Newmarket, north of Toronto).

The KI band has no veto over exploration activity. What they have done would be clearly seen as illegal obstruction were it not for the repeated failure of governments to deal firmly with aboriginal issues.

There is no doubt that the majority of aboriginal people have been terribly served by the reservation system and the misrule of Ottawa, which has entrenched often corrupt band leadership. The reservation system not merely suffers from the traditional failures of collective property, but keeps aboriginal people remote from jobs. For those in northern areas, the best hope is via the development of local resources.

The KI’s legal case against Platinex is full of claims about the band’s “special stewardship relationship with the lands, waters, plants and animals….” But at the same time it acknowledges that the community is subject to all the typical syndromes of native mismanagement, both from without and within: “high rates of substance abuse, family violence and breakdown, vandalism in the community, physical and mental illness and suicide.”

These sorry conditions are in no way due to development, but to lack of it. Indeed, the KI’s own Web site acknowledges that welfare has destroyed the urge to hunt. “The old way of life and traditions gradually disappeared…. The younger generation are not carrying on the tradition. Because of too much dependence on free government assistance.”

As in the Caledonia situation, meanwhile, the natives of the KI are being manipulated and used by those with other agendas. The estimable Western Standard seems to have been the only media outlet to have reported that those contributing to the violent escalation at Caledonia include pro-Palestinian groups, the thuggish Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and CUPE Local 3903. Those stirring the pot at Big Trout Lake include the Toronto-based Wildlands League, which claims that the vast tract of Canada’s boreal forest is under threat.

The KI are seeking not merely to hold up Platinex, which could threaten the tiny company’s survival, but to challenge the Ontario Mining Act as unconstitutional. “It’s huge,” the KI’s lawyer, Kate Kempton, was quoted as saying this week. “f we’re successful, it means you can’t do free entry any more.”

Nobody is denying that natives should be consulted on local resource development, although local “control” is a pipe dream. But what
Platinex is doing is exploration, which has a very low, if any, long-term environmental impact. Without the traditional and legal freedom to explore on Crown Lands, no development will take place. And that would be bad news for all northern natives.

Meanwhile, the main victim in this situation is Platinex. Even if their legal rights are confirmed, operating in Big Trout Lake may prove impossible. In that case, the company should vigorously seek damages from the KI band. Otherwise it will be established, yet again, that violence pays.

© National Post 2006