Several weeks ago, the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) met with Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) representatives to discuss the ongoing softwood lumber dispute that has been heating up lately (see Backgrounder).
Given the importance of the issue and the striking similarities between the First Nations in Northern Quebec and Northern Ontario, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation felt compelled to add its voice to the allegations raised by the various Aboriginal participants in the petition to the United States to investigate the allegations of illegal subsidies provided by Canada and its provinces to the forestry industry.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation also alleges that subsidies are provided in Ontario to the forestry companies in the form of ongoing breaches of Aboriginal and Treaty Rights, lack of meaningful compensation or consultation, and improper forestry practices which all impact negatively on First Nations' rights and traditional territories.
The softwood issue is of great interest and importance for Nishnawbe Aski Nation whose territory covers roughly 2/3 of the land mass of Ontario. Nishnawbe Aski Nation is comprised of 49 First Nations scattered throughout the northwestern part of the province. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of forest have been harvested in the area of the undertaking with little or no consultation with the NAN First Nations who have Aboriginal and Treaty rights in that area.
According to Deputy Grand Chief Raymond Ferris, "The Harris government has always refused to discuss First Nations rights with the people living in NAN territory, yet the government of Ontario sees no problem with pushing ahead with resource development literally on the backs of Aboriginal people."
Since the Conservatives have been in office in Ontario, several initiatives have been forced down the throats of NAN First Nations. For example the Lands For Life, Caribou Mosaic and forest management practices have been pushed through without consultation with the affected First Nations. NAN First Nations are located in an unusual area with part of the territory in the "area of the undertaking" which is being harvested now without consultation or participation of First Nations, and a larger part of the territory in the area north of the 50th parallel which is in danger of being harvested in the same way the area of undertaking is. NAN has repeatedly requested discussions with Ontario on Aboriginal and Treaty rights and consultation to no avail, despite what the provincial ministers might say about this issue.
Romeo Saganash, Director of Quebec Relations for the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) noted "this was how the government of Quebec acted when it ignored the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, and ceded virtually all of the commercial forests (70,000 square kilometres) within Cree territory to logging companies 10 years ago. Not only have we been marginalized from meaningful participation in the forest industry, but many families of Cree hunters have forced into welfare dependence because their hunting territories have been clear-cut." Romeo Saganash added: "we are here to support the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and warn of the consequences to the environment and the lives of Aboriginal Peoples if their rights are ignored."
Deputy Grand Chief Ferris says, "NAN will no longer tolerate the lack of respect the government of Ontario shows us, and we are prepared to take action to ensure our Aboriginal and Treaty rights are respected through meaningful consultation and equitable participation in the economy natural resources generate for everyone else. We have been forced to enter the softwood lumber dispute because of Ontario's attitude toward our people, our land, and our rights."