The decision to join the Land Defence Alliance was an easy one, Ojibways of Onigaming’s chief said Friday.
“The reality is that the Ojibways of Onigaming, our First Nation, has remained in a state of emergency since 2014. And things have gotten worse, to be quite frank,” Chief Jeff Copenace said in an interview.
Copenace said his small community southeast of Kenora has seen 32 deaths since he became chief two and a half years ago.
Meanwhile, he said, companies in the minerals sector have been “barrelling down our community” with projects that present potential threats to nearby “sacred” Cameron Lake and Crow Lake, sources of drinking water in Onigaming.
“We’re watching industry and government race past us without any respect for our lives,” he said.
“And we’ve been calling for help, and thankfully the other First Nations that we’ve met in this alliance have reached out. And to be quite frank, they’re going through the same things.
“It is time for all First Nations leaders to take a stand now together,” he said.
The alliance’s other First Nations — Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows), Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (Big Trout Lake), Wapekeka, Muskrat Dam and Neskantaga — welcomed Onigaming into the coalition this week at a meeting in Winnipeg.
The Land Defence Alliance was formed last January in response to what the First Nations say are violations of their sovereignty by the Ontario government in mining companies’ favour.
Representatives of the alliance came to Queen’s Park in September to ask Premier Doug Ford to sign a declaration affirming First Nations’ right to say no to mining and exploration on treaty land.
The alliance sought a meeting outside the legislative building with Ford, who never showed up. Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford offered to meet them in Ford’s place, but the alliance rebuffed that offer as, in the words of Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle, “an insult.”
The alliance said in a news release that the Winnipeg meeting was about defending their nations’ lives, lands and waters.
“Our land and our livelihood have been cut off, resulting in many of the issues we face today. Our people’s lives matter. We take the position as nations that these lands are stolen. These are our people’s lands,” said Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Chief Donny Morris.
Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle noted that his First Nation issued an emergency declaration two weeks ago and has yet to receive a response from the provincial or federal government.
“The governments have been non-existent as we face multiple crises both in and outside our communities,” Wapekeka Deputy Chief Allan Brown said.
“We are facing real life issues daily, such as a drug epidemic. The Ontario and federal governments only care about the resources on our land and not the lives of our people,” he said.
“Our very existence is under attack,” said Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias. “We need to rise as nations and stand together against colonialism and oppression to defend our lands and our ways of life for future generations.”
Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has not “been helpful in any way,” Copenace said.
Ford’s 2018 election campaign pledge to, if necessary, bulldoze First Nation land for access to resources was “not consistent with the original treaties” – which are about partnership, he said.