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Early FN consultation part of Far North planning initiative

Thursday July 24, 2008

A new initiative announced by the province will require early consultation and accommodation with First Nations before mining development and forestry can go ahead.

Called the Far North Planning Initiative, it will see at least 225,000 square kilometres of the Far North Boreal region protected and plans with each community and resource industries in the affected areas will be created to construct a broad plan for sustainable development.

“This is good news for the people of Nishnawbe Aski, as it will require that First Nations be fully involved in resource development in our traditional territory,” said NAN Grand Chief Stan Beardy. “Not only will this provide clarity for First Nations, Ontario and industry as we pursue new economic opportunities, but it will also support any First Nations who may not be ready for resource development in their territory.”

Through Oski-Machiitawin, formerly the Northern Table, NAN has worked with the province to discuss lands and resources issues.

The issue of land mapping has been raised in those discussion. It is an important step, Beardy said.

NAN and its communities need to identify the areas which must be protected and those areas for potential resource development.

“As First Nations people we are not against resource development, but we want to be consulted and we want to have meaningful input into the decision-making process,” Beardy said, in a release. “It is critical that any development of natural resources in the Far North must respect Aboriginal and treaty rights while supporting an environmentally sustainable economic future for our people.”

Matawa First Nations have expressed preliminary support for much of the initiative.

“Matawa First Nations are very much in support of sustainable resource development that will directly benefit our communities on all levels,” said Eabametoong Chief Solomon Atlookan, spokesman for Matawa First Nations, in a release. “We are however strong believers in the need to protect our lands, air and water for future generations.

“This involves efficient guardianship of the lands, a line of protection against aggressive third party developers, and updating the archaic Mining Act to conform to current jurisprudence regarding consultation and accommodation on Treaty rights.”

This initiative from Ontario is much needed and long overdue,” he said.

Matawa suggested ways to help improve the initiative.

“Matawa First Nations are not part of the Northern Table process and therefore it is essential that the Province ensures that all First Nations are consulted and accommodated throughout this process,” Atlookan said. “We hold firm that consultation must take place directly with the First Nations and/or tribal councils and it will not suffice to consult solely with provincial territorial organizations such as Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN).”

Atlookan said government often overlooks the fact that it is only community members who have the authority to make decisions concerning their territories.

According to the province, First Nation approval of resource development will be key.

“To ensure proper planning and community input, new forestry and the opening of new mines in the Far North would require community land use plans supported by local Aboriginal communities,” according to the release issued by the province.

Because it’s been a hotbed issue in the past, NAN has established its own handbook on accommodation and consultation based on case law. The handbook is in its third edition.

“We recognize consultation and accommodation have to move forward,” Beardy said. “(Industry) can’t go back on what we’ve already got,” Beardy said. “This is a business relationship and … we have to flush out the rules of engagement.

“Our lands hold great potential for economic opportunities and the chance to create better lives for our people. By being active participants in resource development we can ensure that our homelands, our communities and our Aboriginal and treaty rights are respected.”

The benefits of the plan are two-fold Beardy said.

There are benefits to First Nations which include accommodation, consultation and the promise of a review of the Mining Act but you can’t overlook ecological benefits, he said.

The land which is set for protection and review is the homeland of thousands of NAN people. It encompasses 43 per cent of the province’s land including the largest intact forest in Canada and the third largest wetland in the world.

The area is key to helping control the effects of global climate change because it can absorb and store greenhouse gases in trees, soil and peat.

“Although the Northern Boreal region has remained virtually undisturbed since the retreat of the glaciers, change is inevitably coming to these lands,” said Premier Dalton McGuinty. “We need to prepare for development and plan for it. It’s our responsibility as global citizens to get this right, and to act now.”

Priority will be given to protect lands with key ecological features such as habitat for endangered species or important carbon sinks. These lands will be permanently protected through the Far North planning process. Activity on these lands will be restricted to tourism and traditional Aboriginal uses.

Preserving these lands also protects the core cultural connection of the Aboriginal people who live there — their connection to the land, clean water and abundant hunting and fishing, McGuinty said.

Land use plans will begin later this year with the First Nations and communities located within the Boreal forest.

The entire mapping project is expected to take 10-15 years, according to the province.

Other highlights of the announcement include:

• the promise of a better working relationship with First Nation. In addition to a much greater say on the future of First Nation communities and traditional lands, the process also creates opportunities for economic development in these remote communities.

Planning at the community level will be a true partnership. Because any decision on development has the greatest affect on communities, local planning will only be done in agreement with First Nations, according to the province;

• resource benefit sharing. The province will create a new system of resource benefits sharing and will consult with Aboriginal communities immediately on ways to provide greater economic benefit to them from resource development. In the fall, the province will provide details on a down payment to be made by it towards resource benefits sharing.

Matawa agreed with the idea with some stipulation. “The government must move quickly to flow funds for the down payment that will act as an offer of good faith and it must be absolutely clear that the down payment does not represent the final agreement to First Nations on resource revenue sharing,” Atlookan said. “This must be negotiated with all First Nations.”; and

• possible reforms to the Mining Act. The province’s plan aims to ensure mining potential across the province is developed in a sustainable way that benefits and respects communities. The province aims to ensure the mining industry remains strong — but must also modernize the way mining companies stake and explore their claims to be more respectful of private land owners and Aboriginal communities, according to the release.

“The Ontario government believes exploration and mine development should only take place following early consultation and accommodation of Aboriginal communities,” according to the province.

Work on reviewing the Mining Act is expected to begin as early as August.

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