The communities affected by the Ring of Fire need to be well-researched and unified, according to presenters at the A First Nations Strategy for the Ring of Fire conference in Thunder Bay.
Hosted by the National Centre for First Nations Governance (NCFNG), the forum held on Nov. 29-30 was aimed at educating First Nations in what it takes to organize a legal and political strategy that can maximize opportunities within the Ring of Fire.
Maria Morellato, an Aboriginal law and treaty lawyer based in Vancouver, made a presentation focused on Aboriginal rights and title and the obligations of the government when it comes to a First Nation’s traditional territory.
“Aboriginal title means an interest in the land itself and the right of First Nations to exclusive use and occupy particular parcel of land and territory,” Morellato said. “It’s akin to the notion of ownership but it’s more nuanced in Canada law, but it means the right to the land itself and to occupy and use the land.”
Morellato is an expert in Aboriginal and treaty rights having practiced law for more than 20 years and acting as legal counsel before all levels of the court system, including the Supreme Court of Canada and the Federal Court.
“If there’s one message you should take today, it’s get it right, do your research,” said Morellato. “It’s one thing to claim a title, it’s another to prove it. Get your evidence.”
She used past court rulings in cases of an Aboriginal community’s title claim to exemplify the obligations of the federal government, such as the case of the Haida Nation vs. British Columbia in 2004.
“What’s really important about the Haida case is that you don’t have to prove title to land or resources in order to trigger the legal obligation of the Crown to consult and accommodate your rights,” she said, adding that previously a First Nation had to prove it first, but by then it was too late.
One of the rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada in the 2005 case of the Mikisew Cree First Nation vs. Canada was that the government has the obligation to inform itself of the impact of a proposed project on the treaty nation in question.
“They have to sit down, and in my view, assist the First Nation in researching,” Morellato said, adding that there are cases of the government incurring costs at this stage.
The same ruling stated that the Crown cannot act unilaterally and that “administrative inconvenience does not excuse a lack of meaningful consultation.”
Morellato also provided a strategic checklist for First Nations in developing an action plan to work with the government and mining companies.
“What’s most important is for First Nations to be aware what their rights are, and not to overlook their rights because in truth Canada has legally affirmed to give exclusive Aboriginal legal rights and title,” Morellato said “And also the importance of the Crown before those rights are proven in the courtroom, and before they’re proven the obligation of the Crown to consult First Nations and to accommodate and respect those rights, and that to me is really at the heart of what today is about.”
She said her key message is: “the importance of getting organized, becoming informed and collecting evidence of your treaty and title rights, so you can put it together your claim.”
There were also presentations made by First Nations leaders from east and west.
In Nova Scotia, Troy Jerome said that Mi’gmawei Mawiomi Nation was non-existent until the Canadian government challenged three communities’ treaty rights in 1999, claiming they were not signatories.
“We had to research our claim together,” Jerome, executive director of Mi’gmawei Mawiomi Nation, said.
This unified the communities, and by working together and learning from Elders, they built a successful claim. They united under one nation and have since gone on to collectively operate a fishing business and then took part in a $300-$400 million windmill project with the Quebec government.
“We had to build on unity and get organized,” Jerome said.
Chief Nathan Mathew of Simpcw First Nation in B.C. said that having a focused vision was key to his community’s success in forestry.
“We had a long-term strategic plan that lasted three or four different councils,” he said.
The NCFNG is a non-profit organization that supports First Nations as they develop effective, independent governance.
“We work in First Nations communities all across the country in helping to organize dialogue amongst the people, the citizens that make up our respective nations, to come to a collective vision in terms of what they want to do with their future and to look at putting in place more effective and efficient governance that’s based upon our own systems and our own laws,” said Herb George, president of the National Centre for First Nations Governance. “We’ve been working with one of the communities here in the Ring of Fire, Aroland First Nation. And we know the issue around the Ring of Fire, the same issues as other First Nations across the country.”
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