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Attawapiskat blockade ends peacefully

Tuesday February 26, 2013

A blockade of the 90-kilometre winter road leading to De Beers’ Victor diamond mine site near Attawapiskat ended on Feb. 22 after a Timmins judge ruled that it was illegal.

The group of community members who put up the blockade dismantled it after speaking with Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) liaison officers, who said they must enforce the court injunction filed by De Beers Canada and extended indefinitely by Ontario Superior Court Justice Robert Riopelle. A large force of OPP officers was ready to move in to remove the blockade.

Attawapiskat Acting Chief Christine Kataquapit said the blockade ended peacefully and no one was arrested.

The blockade lasted for more than two weeks after a group of community members, cited issues with employment at the Victor Mine and the use of their traditional territory.

It was the second blockade after another small group blocked the road Feb. 4-6. The first blockade ended peacefully after the members reached an agreement with De Beers officials and community leaders.

The winter road, which runs from the Victor site to Attawapiskat, is a critical line for De Beers to ship in fuel, equipment and supplies from Moosonee that would be otherwise be more costly or impractical to bring in by air.

Tom Ormsby, De Beers Canada’s director of external and corporate affairs, said the blockades have severely impacted the diamond mining company’s winter road program to bring in the supplies and threatened future operations of the mine.

“At this point, we know there are financial costs that have been piling up daily because we have local crews and contractor crews who have been on standby trying to execute the program,” he said. “The final total we won’t be able to determine until the end of the winter road season because we’re not sure if we’re able to complete the program.”

Ormsby said De Beers saw the blockade as being illegal since the agreement it signed with the community gave it full access to the winter road.

After De Beers saw no resolution in sight despite many meetings with the community and blockaders, Ormsby said it was left with “no other option” and filed a court injunction, which was granted on Feb. 15.

That night, a sheriff flew into the community to serve the blockaders the injunction, but Chief Theresa Spence met him at the airport to serve a letter that forbade him from entering the community.

While the First Nation does not officially support the blockade, Spence said, “I must protect my people in times of crisis.”

The sheriff re-boarded the plane, flew to the Victor Mine’s airstrip and proceeded to the blockade, where he served the injunction.

Since the local Nishnawbe Aski Police Service detachment had no jurisdiction outside the reserve, OPP officers arrived in from Moosonee. However they took no direct action against the blockaders.

Since the original court injunction would last 10 days, on Feb. 22, a court hearing was held where De Beers sought to extend it and the OPP would gain more direction on how to enforce the injunction.

Spence and seven community members named in the injunction were present to make their case, but Justice Riopelle ruled that the injunction would be extended indefinitely and directed the OPP to lay charges if the blockade was not taken down.

Ormsby said transport trucks began mobilizing on Feb. 23 and that the company hopes the cold weather holds up long enough to complete its program, which had already been planned to run 24 hours a day before the initial blockade took place.

By the time the last blockade ended, De Beers had lost 17 of the 20 days the road was open.

“If we cannot complete program, it’s possible there can be some other repercussions through the legal process,” Ormsby said. “We’ll have to see what happens with the program first. That is the next step.”

Meanwhile, De Beers will continue to work with the community to address members’ issues with the Impact Benefit Agreement, Ormsby said. He said the company and First Nation established a working group last July to address some of those concerns.


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