(Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford during his election victory June 7, 2018. Photo: Doug Ford Twitter)
Contrary to what he touted on the campaign trail, premier-designate Doug Ford will not drive a bulldozer through the Ring of Fire without the consent of First Nations, say Indigenous leaders.
The Progressive Conservatives sailed to a majority government victory on June 7, stoking fears among some Ontario First Nations that Ford will push through resource development in Northern Ontario.
During the campaign, Ford said he would jumpstart mining the mineral-rich James Bay Lowlands about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay – even if it meant driving the bulldozer himself.
But he needs nine First Nations that hold jurisdiction over the area to sign on to the project.
In a post-election letter to Ford, Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said the province’s First Nations have the “ultimate authority when it comes to resource development.”
“The principle of free, prior and informed consent must be implemented,” he wrote. “If our Nations and communities agree to any development, they must be full partners in prosperity.”
During the campaign, the PC, NDP and Liberal party leaders all vowed to move on the Ring of Fire development, a massive project that has been dubbed Ontario’s version of the Alberta tarsands.
Ford also promised to set up a resource revenue-sharing system to ensure Indigenous communities benefit from mining taxes and other revenues collected from the project.
The now-defeated Liberal government previously tried to negotiate an agreement with all nine First Nations, but only managed to cut a deal with three of them.
Just before the election, Neskantaga and Eabametoong First Nations denounced outgoing premier Kathleen Wynne’s “aggressive process to build roads” through the Ring of Fire and called for a reset on the project.
“The development of our homelands is about more than any one mine or road, it’s about the potential transformation of our lands and way of life-forever,” said Eabametoong First Nation Chief Elizabeth Atlookan in a press release. “These discussions are serious and must occur in ways that recognize our rights and involve all our communities, not the closed door approach we’ve seen over the past couple of years.”
RoseAnne Archibald, who’s competing against Day and Six Nations of the Grand River Chief Ava Hill for Ontario regional chief, said First Nations are worried about Ford’s eagerness to mine the Ring of Fire.
“The reality is, you cannot access those resources without the consent of those First Nations that will be directly impacted by the Ring of Fire,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Archibald said Ford has to acknowledge that there’s a “new order” of how to deal with First Nations, as highlighted in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
“It’s not just a matter of sitting down with Doug Ford and negotiating and having discussions with him, but for him to understand the framework that he has to operate in and understand when he works with First Nations,” she said.
Day said he spoke with Ford on the phone shortly after the election to congratulate him and propose an in-person meeting following the regional chief election.
The Chiefs of Ontario general assembly will take place in Nipissing June 26-28, at which time members will elect a regional chief to represent 133 First Nations in the province.
Day said those communities have had a “painful” relationship with Progressive Conservatives, after the 1990s Ipperwash standoff between the Ontario Provincial Police, government and members of the Stony Point First Nations that lead to the death of protester Dudley George.
But he said now is the time for the newly elected government to mend those wounds and build relationships with Indigenous peoples.
While Ford has yet to announce his cabinet, Day is also calling on him to keep the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation under one minister, as per recommendations in the Ipperwash report.
“There is that history and there’s obviously natural apprehension and anxiety, but we have to extend our willingness to work with any government that wants to work with us.”
Lac Seul Chief Clifford Bull, who ran for the Progressive Conservative Party in the new – and largely Indigenous – riding of Kiiwetinoong said he thinks Ford made the bulldozer comment out of a “sense of frustration” to develop the Ring of Fire.
“Everybody should be at the table, including the affected communities,” said Bull, who lost the election to NDP candidate Sol Mamakwa.
When Ford visited the Kiiwetinoong riding during the election campaign, Bull said he showed a similar commitment to building relationships with First Nations.
“Give him a try,” Bull said. “It’s politics. It’s democracy at work.”
APTN News reached out to Ford’s communications team for comment, but did not immediately hear back.