Ontario First Nations Will Lay Down Their Lives to Protect Lands: Chiefs

Declaration follows Supreme Court Tsilhqot'in ruling
By The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press
July 30, 2014 Updated: July 30, 2014

TORONTO—Aboriginal people in Ontario are prepared to lay down their lives to protect their traditional lands from any unwanted development, a group of First Nations chiefs said Tuesday. 

Five aboriginal chiefs served notice on the Ontario and federal governments, developers, and the public that they’ll assert their treaty rights over their traditional territory and ancestral lands. 

That includes the rights to natural resources—such as fish, trees, mines and water—deriving benefit from those resources and the conditions under which other groups may access or use them, which must be consistent with their traditional laws, said Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy. 

“All those seeking to access or use First Nations lands and resources have, at a minimum, a duty to engage, enquire and consult with First Nations with the standards of free, prior and informed consent,” he said. 

“We will take appropriate steps to enforce these assertions.” 

Tuesday’s declaration follows a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in late June. The awarded 1,700 square kilometres of territory to British Columbia’s Tsilhqot’in First Nation, providing long-awaited clarification on how to prove aboriginal title. 

The ruling also formally acknowledged the legitimacy of indigenous land claims to wider territory beyond individual settlement sites. 

But in a separate decision a few weeks later, the court upheld the Ontario government’s power to permit industrial logging on Grassy Narrows First Nation’s traditional lands. Grassy Narrows is different from the Tsilhqot’in decision because it involves treaty land, not aboriginal title. 

Grassy Narrows argued that only Ottawa has the power to take up the land because treaty promises were made with the federal Crown. 

The high court ruled that the province doesn’t need the federal government’s permission to allow forestry and mining activity under an 1873 treaty that ceded large swaths of Ontario and Manitoba to the federal government. 

The Ontario chiefs who spoke out on Tuesday said the provincial and federal governments haven’t respected the agreements their ancestors signed more than a century ago, which gives First Nations the right to assert jurisdiction over lands and resources. 

Grand Chief Harvey Yesno of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said the province’s aboriginal people will draw a line in the stand, put a stake in the ground and tie themselves to it if that’s what it takes to protect their land from unwanted resource development. 

“We’re no longer just going to be civilly disobedient—we’re going to defend our lands, and there’s a big difference there,” he said. 

“Our young people are dying, our people are dying, so let’s die at least defending our land.”

Roger Fobister Sr., chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation, said that “anything that happens on our aboriginal homeland now, they must consult with us. Even if they’re going to cut down one tree, they better ask us.