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Keep faith with Ontario's far north

Editorial: Keep faith with Ontario's far north
Toronto Star August 23, 2009

Premier Dalton McGuinty says his government is building a "new respect and working relationship" with First Nations.

Yet chiefs of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) territory – seething over new planning legislation for the far north – are now threatening to "exercise full and exclusive jurisdiction" over traditional lands.

NAN, which represents most of the people who live in the northern boreal region (the northernmost 40 per cent of our province) increasingly feels betrayed by Queen's Park for failing to deliver on its promises to First Nations.

When Ontario was updating the antiquated mining act, the aboriginal minister of the day said "there will be no situation where exploration will take place on traditional territories ... without the consent of First Nations."

The changes, introduced in May, required far more consultation and cooperation with First Nations. Now, natives are understandably disappointed to learn they will not get any clear power to veto attempts to stake claims on traditional lands.

Last year, McGuinty made Canada's largest conservation commitment by pledging to permanently protect at least half the northern boreal region – 225,000 square kilometres of traditional NAN territory. The Premier said it would empower First Nations and ensure their communities benefited from development on the remaining land.

Yet, the legislation – which passed first reading in June and underwent hurried committee hearings this month – is such a disappointment to First Nations that NAN chiefs are vowing to fight it.

The bill requires the creation of land-use plans before development can take place. But the government controls the process, the money to create a plan and the final approval of a plan.

This does not feel like the "true partnership" First Nations were promised. Indeed, it is a continuation of the old paternalistic relationship.

It also goes against the advice of the government's own advisory council, made up of environmental and industry representatives. The council called for a planning board, jointly appointed by First Nations and the government, to manage the region.

The province should consider including this in amended legislation to ensure it delivers on its stated vision of protection, and economic development, for Ontario's far north. It would also go some way to bringing First Nations back into the fold.

If the government unwisely continues to ignore the views of those who have long called this region home, there is little hope the province's legislation will succeed in meeting its goals.

As Environmental Defence's Rick Smith states: "The only way we'll successfully protect the boreal forest is by First Nations, the government, environmental groups and industry groups working together."

They are a long way from that now. And without substantial changes, this legislation will not do anything to bring them closer together.

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