A searing open letter: Anishinaabe leaders call out Ontario over Ring of Fire violations

This message, co-written by three prominent Anishinaabe chiefs, has all the fire appropriate to the injustice faced by these northern Ontario First Nations. It is satisfying to picture it landing with heat and fury on the desk of Premier Doug Ford and his cronies.

The open letter was referenced by Northern Ontario Business, in an article that began, “three First Nation chiefs from the James Bay region are collectively taking Premier Doug Ford to task for his ‘hop-on-the-bulldozer, myself’ enthusiasm to see industrial development in the Ring of Fire.”

In response to a legal challenge launched November 24 by Neskantaga Nation — one of three signatories to this letter — the RAVEN community stepped up and contributed an  astonishing $75k to ignite public support for First Nations rights. One man on a bulldozer is no match for a community united in solidarity. 

Here is the letter, in full, by authors Chief David Nakogee (Attawapiskat First Nation), Chief Robert Nakogee (Fort Albany First Nation), and Chief Wayne Moonias (Neskantaga First Nation). 

Ontario’s public misstatements and provocations about First Nations and Ring of Fire development

Public statements by Premier Ford reveal a deeply uninformed perspective on the First Peoples who have always lived in what is now Ontario, and on whose backs the Crown and non-Indigenous Canadians have disproportionately benefited. These statements are out of touch with reality, out of step with reconciliation and modern legal development, and not in keeping with the constitutional mandate of honour of the Crown. This behaviour should immediately cease and we ask that it does.

The Premier has publicly stated on numerous occasions that the Ring of Fire mining development is going ahead no matter what (eg. “We’re doing it.” “If I have to hop on a bulldozer myself…”).

“These statements reflect a clear intent for unilateral action no matter whether First Nations in the James Bay Lowlands – being the only people who have ever lived here – consent or consider it safe and fair to do so. This is the very essence, or pit, of colonialism.”

This is also the very essence of the industrialism that has led us into a countdown toward permanent and catastrophic climate change from which we may never recover. We understand as well as anyone can the need for better economic possibilities in the north, and the need to shift away from reliance on fossil fuels. Our people live with these needs every day. However, it matters little how much money can be made from mining, or even how many electric cars we can manufacture, if in recklessly permitting unchecked mining to occur in the James Bay Lowlands, we destroy the world’s second largest intact peatlands and the critically important defence against climate change they offer us.

Bad-faith misrepresenting of benefit to First Nations

The Premier has made statements that cover over unilateralism with assertions that First Nations are being taken care of and support developing the Ring of Fire no matter what. Recently he said publicly that “This is going to benefit so many people from First Nations communities up there…. I believe there are two that, I guess, are a couple of hours away. The other seven are gung-ho to move forward.” These are either lies, misrepresentations based on gross misunderstandings of what Indigenous peoples and our Rights are, or both.

The Premier’s statements are incredible displays of bad faith in the midst of the ongoing consultations and regulatory assessments that are actually supposed to mean something and shape the outcomes of decision-making processes.

The Premier cannot possibly know what is good to do “up here” from an environmental point of view, because he does not yet have the information needed to know this. 

Ontario is trying to have decisions made to proceed with mining without having crucial facts as to whether this is safe and correct to do or not. Ontario has worked with Canada to water down what could and should be a thorough, comprehensive Regional Impact Assessment of the entire area and all potential development in the Ring of Fire, to be anything but. Ontario is also working with Canada to ensure that this RIA is not co-led by the First Nations who have been the caretakers of the James Bay Lowlands for thousands of years, but is rather unilaterally led and governed by the Crown. This RIA will thus not lead to anything close to full information from a western science point of view, let alone from Indigenous perspectives. This assures that decisions made after such a weak RIA will be made in the dark and in a manner that violates the spirit of our Nations’ Treaty relationship with the Crown.

The Premier also cannot possibly know what is good for First Nations “up here”. To purport to tell the only peoples who have ever lived in and governed over the lands in the James Bay Lowlands what is best for them – in the face of our repeated expressions of concern – is deeply paternalistic.

There are many more than nine First Nations that would be affected by the Ring of Fire development, and there are certainly more than ours that have similar concerns. We do not believe there are seven that are “gung ho” about proceeding through the inadequate process being proposed by Canada and Ontario, and we suggest that Premier Ford allow First Nations to speak for themselves.

The two First Nations that the Premier refers to as being far away (presumably Fort Albany First Nation and Attawapiskat First Nation) might be First Nations whose reserves are some distance from the Ring of Fire deposits, but this says little about where our Traditional Territories are, our long histories of interconnectedness across the region, where our people exercise their Rights and cultures, and where impacts will be felt in a landscape where whatever happens inland flows toward us on the coast. We note Premier Ford’s convenient silence regarding the objections made by Neskantaga First Nation, which has a reserve very close to the Ring of Fire.

Indigenous peoples are not homogeneous. There is no single “Indigenous point of view” – and for anyone to suggest otherwise is to deny our humanity. It is true that some First Nations are proposing to build roads that would enable access to the Ring of Fire, although it is not clear whether they truly want that, or if that was a condition of Ontario’s support for connecting their people to much-needed services year-round. In either case, this is in no way suggestive that all or most First Nations are supportive of developing the Ring of Fire, and in fact many are not – at least not at this stage or in this way. No development should occur in the Ring of Fire without having a full-scale, comprehensive First Nations co-led RIA first to see whether any development should occur, and if so what, when, where, and how. The only safe approach is to ensure that such information and analysis occurs before any development does.

The risk of catastrophic results, should this be done wrongly, is too high. The Premier has a duty to citizens of this province to not allow such a reckless risk to be taken, and a duty to First Nations to respect our Inherent Rights and Responsibilities in our Territories. Only when we all have full information on potential cumulative effects across the James Bay Lowlands should any further decisions be made.

We call on the Premier and the government of Ontario to stop pushing ahead unilaterally toward reckless uninformed development in the Ring of Fire, while at the same time seeking to affix to such behaviour the label of “First Nation approved”.

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1 Comment

  1. […] The open letter was referenced by Northern Ontario Business, in an article that began, “three First Nation chiefs from the James Bay region are collectively taking Premier Doug Ford to task for his ‘hop-on-the-bulldozer, myself’ enthusiasm to see industrial development in the Ring of Fire.” Read more here . . . […]

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