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First Nations need to take the lead on Far North development: Yesno

Eabametoong chief regards "nation building" as key to developing local economies
Eabametoong Chief Harvey Yesno (supplied).

Harvey Yesno wants Eabametoong to take the initiative when it comes to development in their traditional territory instead of constantly reacting to it.

The respected former grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) was elected chief of the remote Far North community in mid-June, succeeding Elizabeth Atlookan.

"What has happened in our region is we've just been responding to what's going on,whether it's one permit and one explorer, or the Ring of Fire," said Yesno. "I'd like to be in a position where we are engaging."

Eabametoong, a remote Ojibway community of 1,500, is located 350 kilometres north of Thunder Bay on the Albany River system. It's one of the nine-member Matawa First Nations tribal councils and one of the five remote communities closest to the Ring of Fire mineral belt.

Yesno is a familar figure in northwestern Ontario's political ranks.

He headed up NAN, a political organization of 49 First Nation communities in the northwest and Far North, from 2012 to 2015, and prior to that, he was president and CEO of the Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund from 1993 to 2012. Previously, he served five terms as chief of Eabametoong (also known as Fort Hope).

Regardless of the title, Yesno still talks of "nation building," and of communities finding ways to be autonomous, self-sufficient and "guardians of the (Canadian) Shield."

The latter term came out of the Royal Commission on the Northern Environment, a provincially driven 1985 study that outlined a socioeconomic and environmental vision for the region north of 50 degrees latitude.

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As a fresh-out-of-college economic development officer in Fort Hope in the late 1970s, Yesno gathered input from community members that formed the foundation and recommendations of the final document.

What was expressed by Indigenous folks back then, Yesno said, basically still holds up today: find ways to maximize the benefits from resource development while minimizing the adverse impacts on the landscape.

The report also recommended that Northerners needed a greater say, through a special authority, on how the province made impactful land-use planning decisions in the region.

Participating in that exercise had a profound influence on Yesno's way of thinking. In particular, that First Nations need to apply their own laws when it comes to development and safeguarding the environment.

"I do believe our land is rich in resources. It has to be managed properly."

But like so many studies of the North, it stayed on the shelf, with none of it implemented.

Since then, Yesno finds government investment in water and sewer infrastructure in First Nation communities still hasn't kept pace with population growth, housing and drinking water problems persist, funding for economic development is meagre, and talk of resource revenue sharing, he believes, will only take them so far.

"Unfortunately, our economy is based mostly on government transfers. We're at the whim of the ebbs and flows of programs and services."

True wealth generation, he said, has to come from developing local economies by private sector job creation. That means having equity in the economic activity in the area and gaining the know-how to fully participate.

His predecessor in Eabametoong often expressed grave doubts about industrial activity in the Far North, fearing unchecked development would threaten their land, water and way of life.

The community won an Ontario Supreme Court victory in 2018 in having a junior mining company's drilling permit tossed out after it was deemed the provincial government failed to adequately consult with the First Nation.

Not wanting to force mine-related development on a community that wasn't deemed ready, the province has struck partnership deals with neighbouring Webequie to the north and Marten Falls to the east, on a north-south access road to the Ring of Fire.

Funding for engineering and environmental assessment work for that route is now underway with those two communities positioned as the project proponents.

"We're not encouraging development at all costs," said Yesno. "Our biggest concern always is the land and the water."

But with stringent environmental assessment processes already in place and engagement required with First Nations, he is confident there are enough systemic checks and balances in place to address these matters.

In looking at the area's land and natural resources, Yesno is open to all options, so long as it benefits Eabametoong.

One of his campaign promises was to establish an all-season road heading south, something that's been talked about for decades.

He's also keenly aware government won't build a road to any remote community unless there's a business case to be made through forestry or mineral extraction.

Yesno talks about fostering the "right kind of partnerships" to help them build knowledge and expertise in the mining industry. That may come in the form of their own exploration company to offer contractor drill services.

"I've seen other communities across the country that have done that. When they've participated in the sector offering services other than grubstaking, fuel and manpower, and got into contract drilling, that changed a lot of the views of the local people.

"They're not just watching anymore; they're an active participant."

"Right now, as I sit here, we don't have anything. We're just responding to everything that happens. I don't want to be in that position. I want to take the lead in some areas as far as Eabametoong is concerned."

Whereas Webequie and Marten Falls now have a vested interests in seeing the Ring of Fire become reality, Yesno would rather focus on the needs and priorities of his community.

"We're not taking the position that we have a stake in there," he said.

And he's not about to step on the toes of those wanting employment and the spinoffs from mine development.

"I'm going to look at it from an Eabametoong perspective, and if I see there's a plan of action or strategy on how to move forward as a collective, then I will get on board.

"I'm supportive of what other First Nations are doing, but at the end of the day, we can make decisions as a group of nine, two or three."

He's a bigger advocate of the potential of the Greenstone gold belt on their territorial land.

"This will benefit me more than the Ring of Fire."

With the Ford government canning the Regional Framework talks, Yesno said in order to spur the dialogue toward sustainable development in the Far North, there needs to be direct access to the cabinet table.

Yesno, who served a brief stint with the province's Ring of Fire Secretariat as an Aboriginal liaison, still remembers former Premier Dalton McGuinty's words comparing the Ring of Fire to the Alberta's oilsands.

For an economic event of that scale, Yesno thinks the layers of government bureaucracy need to be stripped away.

He favours appointment of a deputy minister to this file, "who really runs the show," and reports directly to the cabinet and premier, instead of vetting decisions through various ministries before a recommendation reaches the highest level.

Yesno would like to see more local decision-making in land-use planning and wants Queen's Park to take a big picture approach, based on treaty, toward devising an infrastructure strategy for the Far North, rather than deal with a series of one-off projects.

"How it's done should be left on the ground with the players that are there, whether its First Nations or tribal councils. We'll have to vet out those that are in favour of moving forward and those that are not."