Ontario Government’s Refusal to Negotiate Collectively with Matawa First Nations
Sudbury picket against planned development of Ring of Fire, September 6, 2018.
The Ontario Government announced on August 27 it has officially terminated the Regional Framework Agreement (RFA) between Queen’s Park and the Matawa Tribal Council. Nine First Nations comprise the Council whose traditional territories include the area covered by the Ring of Fire mining developments and the territories through which access roads will pass. The Ontario government said instead of collective negotiations it will pursue separate agreements with individual First Nations that are “mining-ready.”
The Ring of Fire region, about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, holds one of the world’s richest deposits of chromite, used to make stainless steel, as well as nickel, copper and platinum. The resources when mined are valued at anywhere from $30 billion to $60 billion. The Ontario government sees the natural resources as a potential economic bonanza for oligarchs in control of the mining monopolies and others needing the minerals.
The RFA originally negotiated by the previous Liberal government in 2014 provided a process towards agreements on the construction of roads connecting the Matawa First Nations, the provincial highway network and the Ring of Fire. When the RFA did not provide the results that the Ontario government and the monopoly in control, Noront Resources, wanted, then-premier Kathleen Wynne moved to bilateral talks to pressure individual nations. In 2017, she signed separate agreements with three of the nine Matawa First Nations.
After the PCs prevailed in the 2018 provincial election, the new government fired, but did not replace, the province’s lead negotiator in the RFA process and cancelled funding for the collective negotiations. The government also eliminated the Joint Jurisdictional Working Group, a special panel of select provincial and First Nation appointees charged with deciding the route and governance of a proposed east-west road to the Ring of Fire starting at Pickle Lake. The decision now to terminate the RFA process means the Ontario government will attempt to split the First Nations and gain individual consent that favours the private interests of the monopolies involved in construction and mining.
Greg Rickford, Ontario Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines and Minister of Indigenous Affairs blames the Matawa Tribal Council for the slow pace of development of the Ring of Fire saying: “Despite over a decade of talk and more than $20-million invested, real progress on the Ring of Fire has been met with delay after delay. That’s why Ontario is taking a new, pragmatic approach to unlocking the Ring of Fire’s potential, one that includes working directly with willing First Nation partners.”
Elizabeth Atlookan, Chief of Eabametoong First Nation, one of the Matawa Tribal Council First Nations that has not agreed to the construction of a road to the Ring of Fire said: “I can’t get a meeting with you [Minister Rickford], I’ve requested meetings, I’ve heard zilch from you. Is it because two nations have decided to build roads that you leave us out of the equation?”
Atlookan said that the Matawa communities have been fractured by the Ontario government’s “divide and conquer” tactics that began with the previous Liberal administration. She said, “We went in as a team of nine…. The government was able to fracture and possibly get the road at the least cost…. It caused a rift among the nations.”
Atlookan said the “betrayal” happened in August 2017 when Wynne announced separate all-weather road deals with Marten Falls, Webequie and Nibinamik. “We did not know they were doing that,” she said.
Wayne Moonias, Chief of Neskantaga First Nation, which also has not agreed to the construction of a road through its territory said: “Do you respect the rights of our people, the ties, the positions we have towards our lands, the way decisions have to be made?”
The Ontario Government and the Noront Resources monopoly have a narrow view of consultations and negotiations. They want Indigenous peoples to agree to the broad thrust of development on the monopoly’s terms and aim of making as much money as possible from mining the minerals and leaving little if anything behind for the coming generations. They expect only quibbling over a few details and blame the Indigenous peoples for wanting something quite different and substantive and delaying the project. Immediate employment and a spurt of “economic development” as the minerals are removed are used as an inducement to force the Indigenous peoples to agree.
The Matawa Tribal Council of First Nations has every reason to refuse to negotiate based on what the Ontario government and Noront want. The direct experience of the development of mining in Northern Ontario, from Bruce Mines to Sudbury, to Cobalt, to the Porcupine, to Elliot Lake and to Attiwapiskat shows that the interests of the mining monopolies, whether Canadian or foreign, is to extract the natural resources of Northern Ontario and remove the social value from the region. The social value is not used to build the communities of the North and their economies. Too often, Indigenous communities have been left devastated and the interests of mining workers ignored and communities left abandoned when the mines close with the environment destroyed.
Minerals can only be mined once. If the working and Indigenous peoples of Northern Ontario are to benefit from mining development, it is essential they have the political power and control necessary to determine its direction. A new aim for mining to serve the needs and development of the peoples of the North and to guarantee their future must control the process and any negotiations.
(With files from Dave Starbuck)