It’s an old story that First Nations know well. Development has traveled ever northwards impacting Native communities. In Northern Ontario there’s about 28 communities that will be affected by Ontario’s latest forestry plans. It is an area that has no roads or energy projects. Generators deliver power and the only way in is by airplane. First Nations in the area say the Ontario government is using the high expenses of these two things as an excuse to open the area up by building roads.
The Nation caught up with Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Raymond Ferris while he was sitting in the lobby of the Queen Elizabeth hotel waiting for a chance to talk to the Canadian and American negotiators discussing the US/Canada Softwood Lumber Agreement. “We’re lobbying in the lobby. Ontario is trying to tell the U.S. their policies are all right. They have something called natural disturbance emulation that’s supposed to mimic a fire. They say they should clearcut to do that. They want to leave only a 45-foot buffer zone around the rivers and lakes and this is the most productive zone for our trappers. That’s where a lot of the fur bearing animals live,” said Ferris.
Ferris was hoping to talk more with everyone negotiating the forestry softwood agreement to ask how they could participate in a meaningful way. “We need to know what’s going on. Both the industry and the Native people are being kept in the dark on these proceedings,” said Ferris. “We want to make sure that there are rules in place before any development happens. A lot of the communities are quite concerned about the impacts and how they are going to be mitigated.”
Ferris knows the roads will bring developers and that leads to concerns about the environment for NAN. The youth are speaking out says Ferris. “They want to have adequate environmental protection for future use of the land. They don’t want to see everything destroyed like what is happening south. They want to protect the languages and the culture because of the non-Native people that will be coming into the area,” he said.
Ferris told the Nation that there was an area where two brand new forestry development projects were opened up and the First Nation’s had some kind of an agreement with the forestry company, but once the road was finished a flood of people came into the area. “The sawmill that was built has about 200 people working there and only about ten of them are Native. So the threé Native communities didn’t really benefit at all,” said Ferris. He said the NAN leadership and the people are looking at these examples and want to learn so they don’t make the same mistakes.
“The Ontario government is trying to open up our area through the Northern Boreal Initiative. They’re approaching our communities one by one and it looks like they’re planning to give them a sustainable forestry license. The licenses have a lot of responsibilities that come with them so we got together with the chiefs in eight communities because they will be the first ones impacted,” said Ferris. He said everyone’s concerned and are looking at how it will affect the other communities. “There are overlapping territories and we want to see a defined map,” he said. “We said before any license is given out there should be consultations with the First Nation before any activity happens. We believe this is the duty of the crown.”
One of the Native schools in the area made a presentation to NAN. Students said the jobs were good and a priority but not as much as environmental protection.
“We get this a lot when we visit the communities. The youth are very expressive.
Young people are quite concerned about the environment. The jobs I don’t think we have to really negotiate. We have to negotiate where the money is going that the government will benefit from and how and what compensations will we receive. So these are serious issues that we will be looking at,” said Ferris.
Ferris feels that the Agreement-in-principle that the GCCEI/CRA just signed sets a standard for Ontario. “Our area is undeveloped and exploration companies are talking to us but we are not letting them in until we talk about it. It’s a matter of getting everyone together and calling for a moratorium on resources until there’s revenue sharing, environmental protection and compensation in place for the impacts. We have to look at the skills needed,” he said.