Supporters rally

Author:
Updated:
Original:

400 gather for jailed KI leaders

TORONTO - Jailed leaders of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation addressed a rally by telephone, affirming the right of aboriginal people to say no to mineral exploration in their territory.

''We're here for what we believe in,'' said Chief Donny Morris, speaking from a pay phone in the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre to thunderous applause from a crowd of about 400 people at the April 9 Ryerson University rally.

''We miss our families and our kids; we wish we could be home; but unfortunately, the way the government is operating, it's not possible for us right now.''

The packed crowd included indigenous people from across the province and beyond, labor activists, environmentalists and proponents of social justice who called on Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to free seven political prisoners who have been jailed because of their refusal to accept mining exploration in their territory without prior consultation.

The six from KI and Bob Lovelace of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation in eastern Ontario deserve widespread support ''because in defending their land, they are defending our environment,'' said organizer Judy Rebick.

Many speakers focused on the need to reform Ontario's Mining Act, dating back to 1873 and predicated on the free entry principle that allows anyone who pays a fee to stake a claim on public land (as well as on private property in some areas) and start clearing trees, making access roads and drilling.

Public land is often the traditional territory of an aboriginal community but, speed and secrecy being of the essence in the race to a claim, the law makes no provision for aboriginal rights to consultation, neither does it allow for land-use planning or assessment of environmental impacts.

McGuinty promised in a 2003 election campaign to undertake land use planning in the north and, when running for re-election in 2007, promised a full re-evaluation of the Mining Act.

Anna Baggio of CPAWS-Wildlands League told the rally that government officials say those promises have been put on the back burner because ''they don't want to put a chill into mining projects in Ontario.''

Meanwhile, the antiquated law represents a Catch-22 situation that has resulted in six-month jail sentences for the six men and one woman who have refused to promise to obey court orders prohibiting peaceful protest.

Fundamental freedoms - of expression, of association and of peaceful protest - are at stake, National Chief Phil Fontaine told the rally. The message is clear, he said, ''that the economic interests will trump the rights of indigenous people every time.''

The abject poverty of First Nations communities is a national disgrace, Fontaine added, noting that he finds it suspicious that politicians have started to question why aboriginal people are living in isolated northern communities and suggesting that they be relocated further south.

''The north in Ontario is some of the most valuable real estate anywhere in the world, rich in so many things - you wonder why they want us off the land. To rape and pillage once more? Well, we must say no to that as well.''

Every northern community must have the right to determine its own future, Fontaine said.

''If they want development, we should support them; but always keeping in mind that the integrity of the communities is paramount.''

New Democratic Party leader Howard Hampton and Christian Peacemaker Team member Jim Loney were among those who addressed the rally but the loudest applause and a standing ovation were reserved for Morris's wife, Anne Marie.

Brushing tears from her eyes, she said her husband found jail to be ''deeply humiliating and degrading.'' Being imprisoned as life returns to the land after a long winter is a special hardship, she said. ''Donny likes to hunt and fish and spend time on the land ... At this time of year, it's the hardest thing.''

Ardoch Algonquin Chief Paula Sherman, who has to pay a $15,000 fine for her part in the protest against uranium exploration, said there are two choices for communities faced with mineral exploration: ''Get out of the way or go to jail.''

Sherman said uranium mining is a quick way of poisoning water and land.

''We've said to Ontario, 'show us a safe uranium mine,' and they can't.''

Former Assembly of First Nations National Chief Ovide Mercredi, from Misipiwistik, Manitoba, noted that the aboriginal belief system, rooted in the land and assuming responsibility for future generations, is not understood by the mainly urban Canadian population.

The Canadian government sees treaty rights as limited to hunting, fishing and trapping, but they must logically include the sustainability of the land.

''If the habitat is destroyed by mining, that is a violation,'' Mercredi said. ''The treaty represents the right to a clean environment for our people.''

He called on McGuinty to follow through on assurances made by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant that he never wanted the leaders to be jailed. Ensure that the government lawyer stands with the aboriginal people's lawyer when the sentencing appeal is heard, and ''not beside the lawyer for the exploration company,'' Mercredi urged.

Bryant told the legislature April 7 that the Crown will be supporting the appeal.

''We think it's important that these matters are resolved at the negotiating table and not through litigation.''

A less conciliatory position was expressed Jan. 8 by government lawyer Owen Young, who asked Judge Patrick Smith to impose ''a financial penalty that hurts. Morris said they couldn't afford that, but that they could reconcile with themselves going to jail. Well, the very fact that it will hurt means that it's the appropriate penalty because the objective here is to be persuasive.''