By Sarah Rotz
In 2008, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) Chief Donny Morris, along with five other community members, were criminalized and jailed for saying “No” to mining exploration on their land. Although the Ontario government ultimately settled the case with Platinex Inc. (by providing the company with a $5 million handout), the government was unwilling to assure KI that unwanted mining exploration would stop categorically. Moreover, the Ontario Mining Act continues to enable free entry for mining companies like God’s Lake Resources; the newest gold mining company to stake a claim on KI land.
KI First Nation—a remote fly-in Oji-Cree community located roughly 1,400km northwest of Toronto—has governed and cared for their land since time before memory. This immense and rich area of lakes, rivers, boreal forests, and wetlands provides KI (with a population of 1,300) with the essential elements of life, including a clean and consistent supply of fresh water. Indeed, one of the many reasons that KI has chosen to say no to mining exploration on its Homeland is that it would contaminate much of the local water system. As a result KI has created an official Watershed Declaration and Consultation Protocol, which declares that “all waters that flow into and out of Big Trout Lake, and all lands whose waters flow into those lakes, rivers, and wetlands, to be completely protected through our continued care under KI’s authority, laws and protocols. We look at protection as restoring our land and waters to their original condition and preserving them in that condition for future generations. No industrial uses, or other uses which disrupt, poison, or otherwise harm our relationship to these lands and waters will be permitted. This includes no mining exploration…”
Clearly, KI has a vision for their land and environment that benefits the KI people, and all life. If nothing else, this vision must be respected. However, the incompatibility of KI’s philosophy with that of unfettered capitalism and economic growth held dearly by our colonial government, makes any form of authentic, unconditional adherence to KI’s declaration unlikely.
Development as Environmental Injustice in Canada
In Canada, environmental and health advocates are often dismissed on grounds that they are unable to present clear causal links between the activities of industrial companies, and the effects experienced by the community. This strategic dismissal of causality—and indeed, dismissal of the people most affected by the injustice—is typical in cases of water, soil and air contamination. It is a common legal position deployed with unconscionable regularity by the Canadian government, as well as various federal and provincial Ministries including Environment Canada, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, Energy Mines and Resources and Natural Resources.
While it may be true that the diffused and ambulant nature of ecological elements may make causal patterns of contamination difficult to identify, the Canadian government has done little to facilitate research or exploration into the impacts of corporate activities on people and environments. Indeed, there are many instances in which the government has actively concealed the demonstrable truth of these claims. They have suggested that claims of environmental injustices are simply untraceable and unprovable, all without any due diligence. This position of willful ignorance and plausible deniability is an effective green light for any and all environmentally destructive corporate activity, as well as a legal bulwark against those who would seek to hold them accountable for their actions.
Communities affected by corporate activities on their land, or attempting to prevent such activities, face a tireless search for scientific evidence to corroborate their lived experience. Such endeavors require a great deal of resources. Of course, most communities simply do not have access to the required time, money, knowledge or power. More importantly, they are often unable to prevent the perpetrator—likely a potent mix of public and private entities—from using aggression, violence, intimidation, coercion, or even extortion to destroy the community’s capacity for resistance. The kicker here is that most cases like this are occurring on unsurrendered First Nation lands, which are to be governed by the First Nation community, and off limits to unwanted development, period. No trial should be necessary, because as long as the land is being used against this Nation’s wishes, the community should have full right to say “NO!” This continuous disregard for such rights means that all communities—in Canada and elsewhere—must step up and support them in their resistance.
Indeed, cases like this are typical within geographically, politically and/or socio-economically isolated or oppressed communities. First Nation reserves such as Aamjinaang know these battles well, and bare the scars to prove it. Aamjinaang is a Chippewa (Ojibwe) community just south of Sarnia. As a result of various oppressive forces, Sarnia’s chemical valley and various other industrial areas have been built directly around the community, enclosing it in the chemical debris of some of the largest industrial corporations.
Consequently, Aamjinaang has been dangerously exposed to toxic levels of industrial chemicals. And the effects are devastating. Residents suffer physical ailments ranging from persistent and debilitating migraines to a multitude of cancers: lung, liver, colon etc. Still, the trifecta of legal, political, and corporate hand-washing insists, there is no causal evidence that proves these effects are directly related to the ongoing industrial activity. This fails to explain why the male-female birth ratio has been dramatically altered. Presently, twice as many girls are being born than boys—an effect often caused by chemicals that imitate endocrine hormones. The release of industrial chemicals has also affected the community’s cultural practices and livelihood activities including hunting, fishing, ceremonial activities and medicine gathering. Nevertheless, those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo in Aamjinaang, have clung desperately to the claim of insufficient causal evidence. Most disturbingly, this claim is being laid to protect industrial producers, and allow them to continue operating on land that is not theirs in the first place, while drawing an immense profit.
Although this community has been fighting a battle with the government and industry for years, little has been done to protect the community from ongoing chemical contamination. The longstanding issue for Aamjinaang, as with many health and environment cases, is that the government continues to disregard cumulative effects of pollution, contamination and toxicity by preventing legislative regulations limiting these effects. In fact, Environment Canada issued an approval for increases in pollution by local industry. In November 2010, residents of Aamjinaang launched a full lawsuit challenging this development. That being said, Aamjinaang has been working on proving their case for years and they are now just shifting their efforts towards government. This change in tactics is a response to the industry’s statement that they abide by regulations that the government sets. What this statement ignores is the pressure the industry puts on governments to regulate in their favor. The tremendous power held by companies is used to coerce government action and/or inaction. According to Aamjinaang, the government follows a long-standing modus operandi when responding to community health and environment claims: “deny, divide, delay, discredit”.
In contrast to environmental contamination cases such as Aamjinaang, mining represents some of the most explicit and traceable forms of ecological and social destruction and injustice. The sources of the toxic burdens of mining are highly physically concentrated. Thus, the “deny, divide, delay, discredit” approach taken by powerful polluters, would seem to be much more difficult to seriously adopt. That said, the situation in KI demonstrates the importance that power itself plays within our colonial society. Of course, Platinex, De Beers and God’s Lake have certainly done their fair share of lobbying, and their unabashed government support should be proof enough.
Before proceeding, I want to preemptively consider a potentially dangerous, and indeed popular, counter argument to analyses like this one. The argument goes as follows: perhaps the practice of displacing a small indigenous population in order to secure massive amounts of raw resources that would service an entire nation, is not, at bottom, unethical. That is, perhaps, at least in theory, there is some way to justify, or balance the initial moral deficit of the endeavor. The Canadian government views itself as a representative of an entire nation—a nation they say, which is predominantly concerned with jobs and economic growth. The government is therefore obligated to demonstrate their competence in providing relevant resources and services to the nation we call Canada. Of course, if they could do this inexpensively without polluting indigenous territory, they would. If they could do this without forcing themselves into indigenous lands, they would. But, they say, they cannot. That being said, surely there must still be a win-win situation to be had? Somehow we can strike a deal that will make “both sides” happy. What would this look like? In it’s abridged version there seems to be two steps. 1. Carefully, and with foresight, the government would relocate the affected indigenous population. 2. As compensation, offer them a sizable funding package. The population will be better off because they do not have to bear the health and livelihood effects of mining, and Canada can continue its upward economic and consumptive trajectory. No harm, no foul.
The problem with this perspective is that it fails to recognize that indigenous people never overtly surrendered their lands to the colonial government at any point in the treaties. The government of Canada’s ongoing act of dispossessing First Nations is based on a flawed assumption that, through treaties, the colonial government acquired full ownership over what is now off-reserve indigenous land. The fact that these unsurrendered lands were unilaterally placed under federal and provincial management, and are now are being used for the purposes of lumber, mineral, water and oil extraction (among countless other forms of extraction and dispossession), patently illustrates the ingrained nature of this flawed assumption. To deeply reconsider this assumption means that a vastly different process of engagement would have to take place between the government—and the corporations it alleges to regulate—and First Nations. Under the traditional application of First Nation minority rights in Canada, when dispossession occurs, indigenous communities cannot simply decide, voluntarily, to leave or to accept whatever compensation the government is offering. Indeed, if the “deal” presented by the government is not accepted, the government can simply revoke it, along with many ‘rights’ that the government has granted the indigenous population. The indigenous community will ostensibly be labeled an enemy of the colonial state and forcefully relocated, and any contractual obligation for compensation is largely null and void. Although the government actively conceals this process, it has been physically, socially, environmentally and culturally destructive for indigenous peoples in Canada—indeed, one need to look no further then the Attawapiskat case to see the devastating consequences of dispossession, encroachment and dislocation. The issue here is that this traditional and ongoing mode of engagement between the government and First Nations is based on a profoundly flawed assumption of ownership (both of land and people) by the colonizer, and is being continuously reproduced in the interests of the state. From an indigenous perspective, the argument is one of sovereignty. Thus, to speak of land and natural resources in Canada as if they are all part of a unified, uncontested whole under the Canadian government is to erase a 400-year history of violent colonization, dispossession and indigenous resistance. In essence, this line of argument is missing an important consideration. At the same time, this kind of discourse necessarily frames a particular group of people and their land claims as simply something that can be bought and paid for, rather than a sovereign right. This objectifies and commodifies and entire group of people based on nothing more than a combination of their race and geography. Surely our collective memories are not so shortsighted that we need to be reminded of where this kind of ontology can lead? Ahem…. slavery?
Lastly, it should be noted that the resource in which Gods Lake Resources is pursuing in KI is not farm land to feed Canadian’s, it’s not even oil to keep us living the comfortable life we have grown accustom to. It is not lumber for houses, it’s not coal for power—that’s not to say that if it was oil, coal or lumber it would be acceptable. Indeed, the resource is gold: the penultimate expression of opulence, indulgence and extravagance. This is not about maintaining our industrialized living standards; it’s about making money for some of the wealthiest companies on the planet.
Read more from Intercontinental Cry: http://intercontinentalcry.org/environmental-injustice-resistance-why-we-need-to-support-ki/