Indigenous prisoners of conscience

posted by Rainforest Action Network

Earlier this week 6 political leaders of the Indigenous Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation were sentenced to 6 months in jail for refusing to allow mining and exploration on their traditional lands.

Cecelia Begg being taken to jail

KI councilor Cecilia Begg, the only woman among the KI six, is now all alone in the Thunder Bay District jail, a notorious jail that has seen 3 aboriginal deaths in the last 4 years.

Please take action to support the KI six.

You can write letters to Cecilia at:

Thunder Bay Detention Centre
Highway 61 South
PO Box 1900
Thunder Bay ON
P7C 4Y4

The Globe and Mail (Canada)

March 20, 2008 Thursday

Are the KI Six outlaws or prisoners of conscience?

BYLINE: RACHEL ARISS, Legal specialist in the Department of Sociology
at Lakehead University

As of this week, Chief Donny Morris and five other band council members
of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation sit in jail. They were
sentenced on Monday to six months in prison by Mr. Justice Patrick
Smith of the Ontario Superior Court in Thunder Bay.

So what “crime” did they commit?

KI First Nation leaders signed Treaty 9 in 1929 to protect their
ability to feed themselves in their homeland (600 kilometres northwest
of Thunder Bay) by hunting, fishing and trapping, and to prevent the
encroachment of early miners and loggers. The native community saw the
treaty as a peaceful way to share the land with newcomers, while
remaining connected to the land’s sustenance and sacredness.

But in the winter of 2005-06, Platinex, a mining-exploration company,
tried to drill on land for which it had staked a claim pursuant to
Ontario’s mining laws but which land also is subject to Treaty 9. KI
First Nation members protested on the site, preventing the drilling
from proceeding. The company sued for damages and sought an injunction
to prevent further protests.

It was the KI First Nation, however, that received an interim
injunction based on the irreparable harm it would suffer if drilling
went ahead as Platinex had planned. The injunction was granted on
condition that the parties negotiate toward an agreement that would
allow Platinex to drill. Ontario joined as intervenor, talks between
the three parties followed, but no agreement could be reached.

The court lifted the injunction last May and imposed an agreement,
proposed by Platinex and Ontario. KI First Nation members were ordered
to allow Platinex onto their land to drill. When they did not do this,
they were found in contempt of court.

In other words, when the people of the KI First Nation asserted their
treaty rights – to secure sustenance from the land, to live on the land
in accordance with their spiritual beliefs, and to share the land, as
equals, with the newcomers – their leaders were jailed.

How did it come to this?

Three laws converge in this place.

The first, since time immemorial and the one that is sacred to the
people of KI, is to follow the duty given to them by the Creator to
protect the land for future generations. According to this law, the
people of KI did not have to follow the court order. In all conscience,
they could not allow Platinex to drill.

Exploratory drilling – and its accompanying noise, campsite, drill pad,
machinery, fuel drums, helicopters and trucks – poses an unacceptable
risk of damaging the Big Trout Lake area, a place of reliable hunting
and fishing sites, trap lines, regular berry harvesting and burials of
still-remembered family members.

The second law, Treaty 9, was a covenant made between equals to share
the land, allowing both peoples to live peacefully together. According
to this law (and the Supreme Court has affirmed that governments must
consult with and accommodate first nations before doing anything that
may infringe treaty rights), it is the Ontario government and Platinex
that have to do things differently. Jailing the KI leadership will not
lead Ontario to properly consult with and accommodate the community’s
concerns – it may do the opposite.

The third law is Ontario’s Mining Act, with its outdated free-entry
staking system. The contradiction between the Mining Act and KI’s
treaty rights is key to understanding why the native leaders are in
jail.

The act allows anyone to stake a claim anywhere on Crown land and, as
soon as it is filed with the government, it is valid. The act does not
mention that all Crown land in Ontario is governed by treaties with
first nations people. It doesn’t even include the minimal first step of
requiring companies or the ministry to communicate with first nations
about exploration. The system makes money for Ontario and, especially,
for mining companies.

Ontario has long resisted fulfilling its treaty promises, perhaps
hoping that impoverished remote communities will not fight for their
rights. Its pattern has been to resist until there is a crisis, until
the damage of broken trust with aboriginal peoples has been entrenched
– Ipperwash and Caledonia are the most recent and most publicized
evidence of this pattern.

Ontario has failed in its duty to consult, accommodate and, more
important, to reconcile with first nations communities across the
province. First nations people and their supporters are tired of this
deliberate failure.

Many aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in this province want to find
a way forward, out of the poverty, racism and despair facing many first
nations communities, toward living together peacefully and
respectfully.

Some of these folks were at the courthouse in Thunder Bay on Monday.
Others attended the courthouse in Kingston when Bob Lovelace, a member
of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, was sentenced in February to six
months in jail for opposing mining exploration on his community’s
traditional lands. We will not go away.

The KI Six have been in jail since Monday. They are in jail because
they believe they have a spiritual duty to protect the land for future
generations, and they believe that drilling the land is not protecting
it. They are in jail because they believe they have legally
recognizable treaty rights that remain meaningful as long as they can
maintain their homeland in its pristine state.

The KI Six are prisoners of conscience.

Clearly, the dispute between the KI First Nation and Platinex is a
crisis. But a Band-Aid solution from Ontario is not enough. It is time
for all of us, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, to stand up with the KI
community and demand justice, and to continue demanding justice until
we have true reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal
people in Ontario.