Saturday, 20 October 2012

Defending territory: Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, the people of the Big Trout Lake

Their land and waters are sacred, with all the interconnected circles of life they sustain For thousands of years, KI First Nation have lived in Kitchenuhmaykoosib (Big Trout Lake), headwaters of the Fawn River, where fish and wildlife abound. Still unspoiled by mining or clear-cutting, traditional life on the land has remained possible. From the 18th century on, they traded with Christianized Cree and HBC's Fort York (modern Churchill, MB), 5 days downstream on the Fawn and Severn (and three times that going upstream) – a feat repeated by a youth team in August of this year. See their photo album and video.  
photo courtesy

Crossing the big lake (18 mi wide, 36 mi long), running the many rapids and portaging requires great strength and skill. Deep grooves found in the armbone of an ancient ancestor, say archaeologists, are a sign of extremely strong arms from a lifetime of hard paddling.

Since Treaty 9 in 1905 the Ojibway-Cree of KI have struggled to defend their territory and treaty rights. It took 25 years for most first nations in the vast area to win adhesion to the treaty, although in 1910 the national government had already ceded the vast territories of “New Ontario” north of the Great Lakes to the province. Driven by gold and silver rushes and timber giveaways, it greatly enriched the Ontario government and its friends. KI, 600 miles north of Thunder Bay and still part of the Hudson Bay Company fur-trade empire, was not greatly affected. After 1950, however, national Indian Affairs provided health, welfare and residential schools at levels far inferior to those of the white population. KI has led in providing local police, air, radio and child welfare services, despite DIA underfunding. The impacts are show in a new film by Andrée Cazabon, Third World Canada, to be premiered this year.

Recent mining exploration in the James Bay lowlands ring of fire threatens the very foundation of KI's ancient way of life, the purity of the water, the integrity of land and forests, and wildlife. It is a story repeated all over the world as extractive industries push aside indigenous peoples in a wild race for scarce resources, driven wilder by financial speculation. The UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) requires “free prior and informed consent”, but is often ignored. In Ontario and many other jurisdictions, a 19th c. mining law allowed “free entry” – that is, subsoil claims could be made without the consent of the inhabitants of the land.

In 1999-2005, Platinex (full details here) raised millions from speculators to explore platinum deposits on KI territory. In 2006 they began drilling without KI consent. Community members held a non-violent protest, and the Chief and Council ordered them out of the area. The company then filed for an injunction to continue, asking $10 million damages. A Superior Court judge ruled in favour of KI First Nation, finding that it might suffer “irreparable harm due to its loss of culturally and spiritually significant land, and of its connection to the land,” but was overruled in 2007 by the Supreme Court. Chief Donny Morris said, “We are going to play ball... We are going to travel down the road (of negotiations). But our consultation process must be recognized and utilized”. Platinex refused, once again relying solely on court orders. Community members set up a another protest camp and led by the Chief, met Platinex workers at the local airstrip and turned them back.

For daring to interfere with the "sacred rights" of capital, in March 2008, the “KI six” (Chief Donny Morris, with councillors Jack McKay, Sam McKay, Darryl Sainnawap, Cecilia Begg and Bruce Sakakeep) were seized and jailed 68 days in Thunder Bay for contempt of court. Provincial police extinguished a sacred fire lit by native supporters, while in southern Ontario cities protests mounted against this attack on civil rights and indigenous religion, and the criminalization of native elders engaged in non-violent protest (CBC video 25 Mar 2008). Elders in several other places had been jailed under similar circumstances. The Ontario government was seriously embarrassed – by its outmoded Mining Law, by failures to ensure aboriginal consultation rights, by the abuse of justice -- and after a year of dithering bought out the Platinex claim for $5 million.

The issue did not end there. Too many other native communities were facing similar threats. Pressures also came from mining interests, some of which were prepared to engage in good faith consultations in order to gain access to rare metals, diamonds, and other riches in the “ring of fire”. In March 2012 the KI support committee held public meetings in Toronto and demonstrations at the Ontario prospectors' convention. The provincial government declared a mining moratorium in KI territory, to prevent a repeat of the Platinex imbroglio by God's Lake Resources. New Zealand invited KI Chief Donny Morris and his wife on a tour to speak about Platinex and the Government of Ontario, and “free mining”. Canadian mining companies were earning unwelcome international attention (see our previous post). In October 2012, Ontario updated its mining regulations to ensure community consultation – but opposition from the mining lobby and investors, other court cases, and the sudden resignation of the Premier, leave the final resolution in doubt. Will indigenous communities be allowed to consult on their own fate?

photos from
The 2012 moratorium only covers half of our traditional territory, says KI watershed community worker Richard Anderson, leading a youth team down the Fawn and Severn Rivers. He has done the journey 11 times. “I’ve been on this trip with my kids... It’s really important that they get to see these routes that our ancestors went through just to survive, to take supplies up there and bring them back to KI.” This August they began a 350 km canoe journey along the ancient route, to visit historic portages, honour grave sites, and absorb traditional knowledge.  In Oji-Cree, every bend and every rapid in the river for hundreds of kilometers has a name. “The Elders have taught us that water is very important, and we should keep it that way... The trip is for awareness that we we are protecting our watersheds for future generations. It’s all we have up here, our land and our water,” he added. “It’s important that we keep it for future generations because they are the next ones that will be using the land.” He plans an even bigger canoe trip next year. Anyone may join.

The KI people have protected our entire home watershed through Indigenous Law,” says Chief Donny Morris. “Now we are calling on Ontario to respect our protection before this sacred landscape is poisoned by the diamond, gold, and metals mining companies who have set their sights on it.”

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