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First Nations leaders removed from legislature after protesting mining development

It was the second time this month that leaders from the Neskantaga First Nation were at Queen's Park to ask for a meeting with Premier Doug Ford.
Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias, centre in green, speaks alongside First Nations community members during an improvised press conference inside the Ontario Legislature, at Queen's Park, in Toronto on March 29, 2023. Moonias was one of two First Nation leaders who were kicked out of Ontario's legislature for shouting at Premier Doug Ford to meet with them over mining concerns on their lands in the "Ring of Fire" region. (Allison Jones/The Canadian Press)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

Two First Nations leaders were removed from the Queen's Park chamber on Wednesday after disrupting question period over what they say is a government trampling on their rights by speeding ahead with mining developments. 

Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias and incoming chief Chris Moonias were sitting in the visitors' gallery during question period when NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa asked Premier Doug Ford if the government would stop moving forward with its plans to develop the Ring of Fire over some First Nations' objections. 

Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford fielded the questions directed at Ford. After Mamakwa asked one of his questions, both Wayne and Chris Moonias erupted, saying there will be no Ring of Fire without Neskantaga's free, prior, and informed consent and demanding a meeting with the premier, and the premier alone. 

The Ring of Fire is a mineral-rich area in Northern Ontario key to the provincial and federal government's economic development policies that played a big part in the Progressive Conservatives' 2022 election platform. It contains several deposits of minerals like cobalt and chromite, used for modern manufacturing of things like electric vehicles and cell phones.

The Ontario government has already earmarked nearly $1 billion for developing the road to the remote area.

It was the second time in a month that representatives from Neskantaga were at Queen's Park to ask for a meeting with Ford, which they haven't gotten yet. 

A spokesperson for the premier told The Trillium his office hasn't received a formal meeting request. 

"The premier is in constant communication with chiefs from across the province," the spokesperson added. 

Environment Minister David Piccini said it's important to note "there are a variety of opinions" on the processes and referred to an agreement between the government and the Webequie and Marten Falls First Nations to proceed with an environmental assessment on one of the roads to the Ring of Fire. 

"That was a very collaborate approach," he said.  

A law professor advising Neskantaga recently told The Trillium the province isn't engaging with Neskantaga on their terms. 

There have been attempts by representatives of the companies looking to develop the Ring of Fire to consult, "but there have been no meaningful attempts to actually adopt the consultation protocols that Neskantaga requires," said Dayna Nadine Scott of York University. 

Neskantaga "has been repeatedly articulating the way it wishes to be consulted on the road projects, and particularly by Ontario, who are the ones that hold a constitutional duty to consult," she said. "Instead of meaningfully engaging with Neskantaga on their terms ... the proponents' consultants continue to just send email updates and invite them to webinars, that kind of thing," she added.

"Ontario believes that it can delegate what it calls the procedural aspects of consultation" to the companies, she said. 

That's also a bone of contention for Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle. 

Ontario "should be approaching us and saying 'could we do this on your land?' but that never happens," he said at a press conference.  "I can tell you for a fact that we haven't been consulted," said incoming Neskantaga chief Chris Moonias at the press conference.

"There hasn't been any government official that has stepped into Neskantaga for the past several years."

"Consultation happens in the community, in our language that we understand ... that's our understanding of consultation," he added. 

The Neskantaga leaders were joined by other First Nations leaders and dozens of community members at Queen's Park on Wednesday for a press conference to outline their concerns with the provincial government's mining agenda.

Alvin Fiddler was representing Muskrat Dam First Nation, where he served as deputy chief from 1993 to 1998. He's held other high-ranking positions in other First Nations bodies and worked on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Grassy Narrows chief and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) Head Councillor Cecilia Begg were also at the press conference.

A representative of the Wapekeka First Nation was listed on the advisory but did not attend. 

The five First Nations "formed an alliance to protect their lands and waters in the face of mounting concerns about encroachment on their territories by mining exploration companies who have been enabled by the Ford government's pro-industry stance," according to the news release. 

In addition to the meeting with Ford on the Ring of Fire, the alliance of First Nations leaders raised other issues they want to be addressed by the provincial government. 

They also want an end to "free entry" mining in their territory, the release said. 

Muskrat Dam is "hearing stuff was being proposed in our territory through social media," Fiddler said.  "There's no free, prior, and informed consent. There's nothing at all from government or industry," he added. 

Currently, mining claims can be staked in the province without First Nations consultation. Before a project actually gets developed, however, there needs to be consultation. 

The province has already approved roads leading to the remote region, and recently launched an environmental assessment for one of the road projects, dubbed the North Road Link.

The environmental assessment is being led by two First Nations — Marten Falls and Webequie — after the two nations came up with a terms of reference for the project that was approved by the government earlier this month. 

There are two other roads involved in the larger Ring of Fire development scheme.

One road — the Marten Falls Community Access Road — would connect the Marten Falls Nation to the existing provincial highway network near Aroland First Nation. The second portion — referred to as the Northern Road Link — would connect the Marten Falls road to the Ring of Fire Region, which is just east of the Webequie's traditional territory. Then, there's another road — the Webequie Supply Road — that would connect the Ring of Fire region to the Webequie's territory. 

The Northern Road Link crosses the Attawapiskat River, in Neskantaga's territory, hence the Nations' leaders getting involved. 

The federal government also has a role to play in approving the various Ring of Fire-related projects.

There was a draft regional assessment framework, but federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault recently scrapped that ongoing process and promised to start again over concerns Indigenous communities weren't having their concerns addressed, according to a letter obtained by The Narwhal. 

Earlier in March, federal Natural resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the various approval processes could be sped up, but not at the expense of environmental safeguards and Indigenous consultation.  He also said Ottawa won't pony up any money until the actual environmental assessments are done.

This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.