Having served 103 days in jail for defying a court order for staging protests at a potential uranium mining site near Sharbot Lake, Ontario, college professor and retired Ardoch Algonquin Chief Robert Lovelace has no regrets about serving time but questions what his sentence has done for freedom of speech.
Last February Lovelace was sentenced to six months in jail and fined $25,000 by Justice Douglas Cunningham in Kingston, Ontario for protests on the property of the Frontenac Ventures Corporation because the Algonquins believed that the testing the mining company was doing for uranium was on his First Nation’s traditional territory.
Lovelace, along with his co-Chief Paula Sherman, were both charged with contempt of court after staging a tent city at the entrance of the mining site over the course of several weeks during the late summer and early fall of 2007. When Cunningham made his ruling, Frontenac’s lawyer Owen Young demanded a “harsh punishment” for Lovelace to dissuade others from following in his footsteps.
Coincidentally, Young is also the lead lawyer in the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Though Lovelace was released from jail through the appellate court after serving 3 months of his sentence, since his release Frontenac has still been favoured by the Ontario courts system. Just recently the Ontario court of appeals granted the Ardoch Algonquin lawyers $50,000 – $40,000 from Frontenac Ventures and an additional $10,000 from the province of Ontario – to pay for the costs of overturning Lovelace’s sentence. After that ruling, Judge Cunningham granted $100,000 to Frontenac to be paid by Ardoch.
“He must think he got the last laugh in that,” said Lovelace in regards to Cunningham’s ruling.
“We know from our research that Judge Cunningham was a political advisor to Brian Mulroney during the Oka Crisis and one of the proponents of bringing in the army. We also knew that from people who are close to Judge Cunningham that he does not like Indians,” he explained.
Lovelace believes that Frontenac was naive and misguided in entering into the mining dispute with First Nations communities and that the dispute has sullied its reputation. What is even more alarming to him is the long-term impact that the ruling will have on the legal system.
At the same time, Lovelace sees the positive in his sentencing as he believes that it serves as a wake-up call for Aboriginal groups in Canada who are fighting for their lands amidst post-9/11 conservatism where the word “terrorist” is thrown around only too lightly.
“People have self-censored themselves and tend to just stay away from hot political issues in which direct action might be the only recourse,” said Lovelace.
As a fervent believer in Canadians’ democratic right to speak their mind and the rights of Indigenous peoples to fight colonialism, Lovelace is hoping that his stiff sentence does not prevent others for fighting for their rights.
For as much as he believes that both the province of Ontario and Judge Cunningham were looking to dissuade Indigenous peoples from taking action to help their communities, Lovelace doesn’t think it will happen.
“What concerns me more is that as Aboriginal people we have to engage in resistance. We are slowly becoming cultures of resistance and that is just another way that we are drawn away from our traditional values of getting along with others and avoiding conflict. It’s sad that those traditional values have actually worked against us and invited colonialism upon us,” said Lovelace.
But, instead of cowering in the face of colonialism, Lovelace believes that First Nations need to “look beyond the blockades” and work on strengthening quality of life for their own people in everything from daycares to old-age homes instead of devoting their full efforts to fighting oppression.
In his mind there is no one tactic that Aboriginals should adopt in fighting for lands but go at it with an integral fivepronged approach.
The first tactic is “research” to fully understand the issues in regards to not only old customs and traditions and their meanings but also the intentions of the Crown and business.
The second prong is “community education” which Lovelace sees as something that needs to start from within the community but not end there.
“We need to be working from our community outward to inform others as to what the issues are because a lot of Canadians simply don’t know what to think about the problems. They don’t have the information to be able to formulate clear and logical ideas.”
The third prong is direct action to not only bring economic pressure upon those who are proponents of unwanted development or polluters to let them know that they can’t get away with what they are doing but to also raise social awareness.
The fourth prong is legal action and knowing the law. “We have to work within the context of the Canadian government to some extent but we also have to be cognizant of our own customary laws and apply them where they should be applied,” said Lovelace.
The last prong, and Lovelace explained that this was what he is now investing more time into, is healing.