April 2008: First Nations Fight to Protect Their Land

Algonquins and settler allies block proposed uranium mining
April 1, 2008

A mining exploration company’s government-supported attempt to drill for uranium on First Nations land is finally beginning to create outrage far beyond the quiet corner of Eastern Ontario where it began over a year ago.

On February 15, a Kingston judge’s draconian sentencing of Algonquin leader Robert Lovelace for contempt of court made headlines where long months of peaceful protest and arduous negotiating had not. It took a six-month jail sentence plus huge fines to get the media to notice an ongoing story that has major implications for the environment, Aboriginal rights, and the public health of present and future generations.

The story began in early 2007, when the Ardoch and Shabot Obaadjiwan Algonquin communities and other local residents found out that their land was threatened by a proposed uranium mine. The Ontario government had given a permit to Frontenac Ventures corporation to drill for uranium on a 30,000-acre tract of wilderness in northern Frontenac County, 100 kilometres upstream from Ottawa. Some of the area staked is private property, but most is First Nations land, claimed as “Crown land” by the provincial government.

This “Frontenac Tract” is part of the Ottawa River watershed--traditional Algonquin territory never sold or surrendered to the Crown, and the subject of Comprehensive Land Claim negotiations with Ontario and Canada since the early 1990s. By issuing exploration permits on this disputed land, the Ontario government made a mockery of its own negotiations and ignored Supreme Court rulings that require meaningful consultation with First Nations before allowing development in their territories.

Frontenac Ventures seized the opportunity. In the spring of 2007, they leased a disused mine property at Robertsville, 90km north of Kingston, which has the only feasible road access for the Algonquin land they had staked. They set up an exploration camp and began clearing trails and preparing to drill for uranium.

Uranium--and something else besides. Greedy stock market investors and like-minded governments offer such companies, if not something for nothing, then a lot for very little: millions in private venture capital, along with publicly-funded subsidies and tax breaks like the “Canadian Exploration Expenses” (CEE) incentive and flow-through share programs. These government handouts and listing on the TSX are bread and butter for junior exploration companies like Frontenac Ventures.

As spring came last year to the area’s forests and lakes, concern was building over the dangers uranium poses to human health and the environment. Meetings took place between Algonquins and their “settler” neighbours, research was done, letters written, questions raised. But even as more alarming facts emerged about the risks of drilling and mining uranium, it was clear that the company was going ahead regardless.

At the end of June, 2007, in conjunction with the First Nations’ National Day of Action, the non-status Algonquin communities of Ardoch and Shabot Obaadjiwan peacefully occupied the minesite at Robertsville. They had given advance notice, and the company had temporarily vacated the site, but as the occupation continued through the weekend and into the following weeks, it became evident that this was no token demonstration. The First Nations were there for the long haul.

They were supported by hundreds of non-Algonquins from the local area and beyond. Proud to be known as “settlers,” they brought food and supplies to the site, held rallies and meetings, raised money and awareness, and organized a communications network. The email newsletter Uranium News, and the comprehensive website (www.ccamu.ca) are the work of the locally-based Community Coalition Against Mining Uranium (CCAMU).

From the start, the protest was determinedly non-violent. The gate was attended day and night by Algonquin peacekeepers under the direction of Earl Badour Sr. of Sharbot Lake, War Chief of his community and a man deeply committed to peaceful means of defending Mother Earth. The Sacred Fire burned constantly, providing a spiritual focus based in age-old tradition and a place for reflection and healing amidst the tension.

And tension wasn’t lacking. Protesters’ lives had been turned upside down, their families disrupted, employment abandoned or delayed. Some local people, notably businesses involved in the exploration work, resented the protest. Inevitably, there was some posturing on both sides. Neighbourly relations were strained or broken, and no one could see how the whole thing might be resolved.

Still, the protest site was a wonderful place to be. No one who was there will ever forget the mornings in the kitchen preparing breakfast for 30 people, the satisfaction of chopping wood or rigging up another tarpaulin, the laughter and the constant discussions. People who had never considered themselves “political” were learning more than they ever wanted to know about uranium, the mining industry, and the invisible forces linking corporations and government. Settlers who hadn’t really known their Algonquin neighbours before got to hang out around the fire with leaders like Ardoch Elder Harold Perry and Co-Chief Paula Sherman and Shabot Chief Doreen Davis.

Mindful of the lessons from Ipperwash, the Ontario Provincial Police helped to maintain communications and prevent crises, particularly through their “ART” and “MELT” liaison teams. The Algonquins, working from an office in a donated construction trailer inside the gate, continued to push the government for proper consultation. Frustrated, Frontenac Ventures launched a $77-million law-suit against the protesters.

By the end of August, the company had what it wanted: an interim injunction ordering everyone away from the site. But when the sheriff arrived with the court order, he was welcomed by a crowd of some 150 people chanting and drumming to drown out the words he read. Alerted a couple of hours before, CCAMU had activated its rapid response network, and it had worked. Settler support mushroomed, and an entire tent village went up outside the gate. A Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation, led by former Iran hostage Jim Loney, initiated an ongoing CPT presence at the site.

Despite the injunction, the Algonquins remained steadfast, insisting they would only leave if the government began true consultations and guaranteed no drilling while talks went on. Apparently outraged by their stubborn determination, Judge Douglas Cunningham of the Ontario Superior Court issued a harsh follow-up injunction on September 27, and charged the protesters with contempt of court for defying the earlier order. In the face of evidence implicating at least 50 people, both settlers and Algonquins, lawyers negotiated the number charged down to eight, among them five Ardoch and Shabot leaders who bravely volunteered to take the rap for everyone. The trial was set for November.

Under growing pressure, the government now began to show signs of being willing to talk. While continuing the occupation, First Nations leaders engaged in weeks of intense discussions with provincial officials, trying to agree on terms for mediation. In a gesture of good faith as they neared agreement in October, the Algonquins moved out from behind the gate, relocating the big construction trailer on the road allowance and building a small cabin nearby. A mediator was finally chosen, the contempt charges suspended, and in early December the talks began.

But the protest itself didn’t end. As the cold weather set in, settlers took on the task of maintaining a watchful round-the clock presence at the site. Local grandmother Donna Dillman started her hunger strike there, adding strength to the growing demand for a uranium moratorium in Eastern Ontario. Frontenac Ventures and their security people came and went through the gate, doing the “non-intrusive” preparatory work agreed to under the terms of the mediation. It was a truce of sorts, and a welcome one.

Soon after the New Year, however, tensions began to mount again. The company beefed up its security and began digging trenches along the edge of the property. Reports from the mediation talks put everyone on an emotional roller-coaster ride, momentary optimism alternating with outrage and despair.

That ride came to a crashing halt at the end of January. An innovative First Nations proposal for a consultation “pilot project” was being discussed when the Ontario government pulled the rug out from under it by insisting that drilling must go ahead. Bound by Algonquin law to protect the land and water, the Ardoch and Shabot leaders said “No!” The talks were off, the blockade was on again--and so were the contempt trials.

Now, with Robert Lovelace fined and in prison, other protest leaders facing further sentencing, and protesters completely barred from the site, let’s look at what all this means. On the plus side, the mining industry and its investors and government allies have been kept at bay at Robertsville since last June by the stubborn non-violent resistance of the Algonquins and their neighbours. That is no small accomplishment. The extreme nature of the court-imposed punishments and conditions is itself testimony to just how important it is, how much the forces of greed and exploitation have to lose in this struggle.

But for the people involved, those punishments and restrictions are brutally real, and it’s easy to feel defeated. What we’re up against is huge: a monolithic network of corporate power, government collusion, and individual greed that is willing to sacrifice the environment, abuse human rights, and endanger public health for generations to come. It is almost unbearable to sit in that courtroom and listen to the lies, the manipulation, the gleeful twisting of already-flawed laws in the service of the exploiters. It is devastating to see the power they wield over our lives, our communities, our environment, and our future.

And yet... How can you yield to despair when you’ve watched people quietly put their lives on hold to join the blockade, heard them turn major setbacks into something to laugh about, seen their calm courage on the witness stand? Some of us have had the honour over these past months of sitting around the fire with those people, swapping stories long into the night. We have learned much about their respect for other humans, for the Earth and all of creation. We have experienced the gentle humour, the courage and caring at the core of Algonquin culture. And we know those values must once again come to stand at the core of our own principles.

That’s what is really at stake in this fight. Caring and respect for the living land mean nothing to those who want to drill holes into that land and batter the life out of it. It’s not just the uranium and the money they want, it’s the power. That’s why they are so desperate, so brutal: they see their power threatened by a force they cannot control.

It is a growing force, fuelled by outrage at injustice and love for Mother Earth. We have strengths they don’t possess, and we are pushing back, saying “No” to the mining companies, to the investors, and to the governments that cynically back them up.

Who knows what the future holds?

(Helen Forsey is a writer and translator based in North Frontenac, Ontario, who has been involved in the local anti-uranium protest from the start. She will provide an update in a future issue of The Monitor.)