The Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nations in northwestern Ontario are loudly asserting their sovereignty in a landmark declaration that opposes harmful industrial activity on their lands. The KI Water Declaration and Protocols passed in early July with support from voters in a community referendum.
The document calls for Big Trout Lake and watersheds to be protected from all industrial uses that disrupt, poison, or harm the lands and waters. The protocol outlines the procedure for discussions with government and outside companies over resource management in all the rest of KI territory that hinges on prior informed consent.
Chief Donny Morris and five others were jailed in 2008 after attempting to stop Platinex from engaging in mining exploration in KI territory. After public outcry, an appeals court released the jailed KI leaders and in 2009 the province bought out the mining claims in the area and promised never to develop them without KI's support.
Chief Morris hopes to take this latest declaration to the United Nations when it convenes in September. He explained that as a partner to the Treaty 9 agreement with Canada, the KI have an obligation to protect the environment for future generations. "We signed a treaty because we wanted to share and we wanted to coexist. Now, that's something that has been neglected for so long," he said in a phone interview from the band council office in Big Trout Lake.
While little has been published about this important development outside local northwestern Ontario press, such a declaration is unprecedented. Chief Morris said he was not aware of other communities doing this.
"But that doesn't mean we're going to stop there," he declared. "There's the question of governance and pretty soon we're going to have our own government to tackle the issues in our region. We don't need somebody in downtown Toronto dictating or underlying what should transpire."
According to Thunder Bay's NetNewsLedger, Ontario's Minister of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry, Michael Gravelle, responded to the declaration.
"Our government takes KI's concerns about land and resources very seriously," he said. "Ontario respects Aboriginal and treaty rights and is committed to meeting the province's constitutional and other obligations in respect of Aboriginal peoples."
However, KI Chief Donny Morris was skeptical: "To this day, most levels of government have not responded. They don't have to accept it or not, because we are a [sovereign] nation ourselves."
It took about four months for the declaration to be drafted, but the idea first sparked as Chief Morris sat in his prison cell in 2008 to 2009. He and the other prisoners, the KI Six as they came to be known, contemplated how they could protect their lands from disruptive development and exploration in the future.
"That's what made us realize, when were sitting in jail on the inside looking out on our community and our resources -- hey, we're not even prepared. The reality is the non-native government think they own everything," said Chief Morris. "It made us see what we needed to do to get from A to B. We need to start mobilizing."
Earthroots, Greenpeace and Council of Canadians are among a handful of organizations that have signed onto a letter supporting the declaration. "Far too many First Nations communities are forced to suffer from industrially contaminated water sources," said David Sone of Earthroots.
Individuals and organizations residing in Toronto strongly supported the KI in their struggle against Platinex, said Chief Morris. "So I'll be appealing to the Greater Toronto Area to do that. That's where the money is, in downtown Toronto and that's where the people are," he said. "Color doesn't matter to them; race doesn't matter to them; they're open there."
KI Big Trout Lake is 440 km north of Sioux Lookout, the closest urban centre. The First Nations community is one of the largest in Canada, with a population of 1,429 people. Members were given opportunity to vote in a referendum on the reserve and in surrounding urban centres on July 5, with 96 per cent of voters in favour.
To sign the letter of support click here.
Carmelle Wolfson is a journalist based in Toronto.