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A growing number of northern Ontario First Nations are raising concerns about Premier Doug Ford’s controversial economic recovery bill.
Bill 197, an omnibus piece of legislation that was passed last month without public consultation, included a rewrite of environmental rules that critics said weakened key protections. Both the Fort Albany and Attawapiskat First Nations denounced the law in late July.
In an open letter dated Aug. 7, the grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council — which represents Fort Albany, Attawapiskat and five other nations near James Bay — called on Ford to honour Ontario’s treaty obligations to consult Indigenous people on matters affecting their traditional territories.
“There was no due process,” Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon said in a phone interview, referring to the Ford government.
“That’s quite important, because how they approached it was quite disturbing. They had no regard for consultation with the Indigenous First Nations.”
Ford has said Bill 197, which altered 20 pieces of existing legislation, is aimed at speeding up key infrastructure projects that the government says will help Ontario recover from the economic hit caused by COVID-19.
It was passed despite concerns from Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk, who said the legislation was “not compliant” with Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, which requires the government to consult the public on changes affecting the environment. A coalition of green non-profits is taking the government to court over the bill, asking Ontario’s Divisional Court to rule that it was “unlawful” for the province to pass it.
Lindsay Davidson, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, said in a statement that Bill 197 included provisions that protect treaty rights. The new environmental assessment process also includes measures to require consultation with Indigenous communities, he said.
“We advised communities that there will be additional opportunities for consultation in the future and have asked for their thoughts on how we can work together so their interests and perspectives can help inform the modernized environmental assessment program,” he said.
“Now that the legislation is passed, the ministry will continue to consult with Indigenous communities as part of our efforts to modernize the environmental assessment program.”
Davidson also said the government held six webinars with First Nations to explain the ramifications of the bill. Five of them were held before the legislation passed, and the sixth was only held the day after because the community wasn’t able to participate on any other dates, Davidson added.
Ontario's Bill 197 included a major rewrite of environmental assessment rules, which critics said watered down key protections. A council of First Nations is now sounding alarms about the legislation. #onpoli
Nations in the Mushkegowuk Council are downstream of the Ring of Fire region. The Progressive Conservative government has announced intentions to develop the area into a mining hub, despite local opposition.
Solomon said despite the measures aimed at preserving treaty rights, communities are concerned Bill 197 will be used to push through projects they have argued against. He called the bill a “major step back” that would undermine decades of environmental progress.
“Sadly, they’re using COVID-19 as a decoy to restart the economy at the cost of the environment, the waters, the animals, our livelihood,” Solomon said, adding that he understands the importance of the economy, but remains concerned about the impact on the environment.
“That's significant because we still practise our hunting and our trapping in our area. That’s a part of our subsistence, and being stewards of the land.”
Treaty obligations date back over 100 years
In his letter to Ford, Solomon outlined the obligations provincial and federal governments agreed to when Treaty 9 — which covers a wide section of land west of James Bay — was negotiated in 1905.
Ontario’s representative during those discussions, Daniel MacMartin, kept detailed notes in his personal diary of verbal promises made to the Mushkegowuk nations. Though the written agreement, outlined in a language First Nations leaders didn’t understand, outlined that the nations were ceding land and rights, the verbal promises recorded by MacMartin guaranteed the nations the right to use their homelands as they always had.
The nations agreed to the verbal promises, not the written ones, Solomon wrote in the letter.
“Premier, you can read those promises yourself, in the handwriting of the official Ontario government representative, who was writing down what he saw and heard,” the letter reads.
“Premier, we believe that promises made should be promises kept. We hope that you agree.”
Solomon also said Bill 197 has not changed the fact that the government must consult the Mushkegowuk nations about projects in their territories.
“If your government wishes to obtain Omushkego/Ininiwuk peoples’ consent to resource projects, forestry projects, mining projects, and other development in our Aski/lands, you will need to consult with us from the beginning,” he wrote.
“You will need to show how these projects respect the integrity of our environment. Further, you will need to demonstrate how these projects will benefit the Omushkego/Ininiwuk.”
Solomon said Ford has acknowledged the letter, and that he hopes the premier will be “genuine” in addressing council’s concerns. The council is looking at filing a court application of its own to contest Bill 197, he added.
“For me and other leaders this is illegal,” Solomon said in the interview. “It’s not right.”