|The Hon. Bob Rae|
On November 12, the Honourable Bob Rae, chief negotiator for First Nations groups in discussion with the Ontario government about the future of the 'Ring of Fire,' delivered the Annual Saul Goldstein Lecture at Woodsworth College, University of Toronto. His lecture, The Ring of Fire: Northern Ontario's New Economic Engine?, outlined the history of relations between Native people and the rest of Canada as well as the challenges we face as we look to develop the 'Ring of Fire,' a potentially enormous economic opportunity for the province and the country as a whole. Given my interest in the ONTC and the 'Ring of Fire,' I was in the audience.
Rae's overview of the issue, which he described as “the challenge that we face together as a province,” began with a history of Native subjugation through unfair treaties and the Indian Act, which saw Native people forced to assimilate (or die) in the face of government land grabs. He noted that “Canadians will have to come to grips with the most disastrous exercise in social engineering” when Justice Sinclair's report into the residential school system is released next year. “It can be called a genocide,” Rae continued, highlighting that the government's past aboriginal policy of “not letting a people be a people,” leaves a legacy that will be difficult to repair.
At the crux of the 'Ring of Fire' issue is the question of treaties, in particular the numbered treaties signed between Native groups and the province in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Treaty 9, which covers the 'Ring of Fire,' was sent north by rail and canoe to be signed by Native groups who had no grasp of English and often signed only with an 'x'. While the government saw Treaty 9 as the way to a clear title on Native land, Native groups saw the treaty as an ongoing relationship. This was, in short, the “trillion dollar misunderstanding” which continues to have consequences today. Provinces (such as British Columbia and Quebec) which never signed numbered treaties have far better relations with Native groups. This phenomenon can be clearly seen by comparing life for the James Bay Cree in Ontario with that of their brethren in Quebec.
Turning to the 'Ring of Fire,' Rae pointed out that, as a result of the treaties, there are “two different understandings [that] people have about this land,” a problem further compounded by the fact that Native groups do not consider the land to have ever belonged to them; they were simply custodians for the Creator. Ownership aside, the land that the government and mining companies want to develop is inhabited by a “99%” native population who want to “control their destiny.” The time has come for Native groups to choose their own future, rather than the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines deciding it for them. Historically, Natives were never consulted as Ontario developed northwards. Sudbury was Native land. Timmins was Native land. In fact, it was all once Native land. For the 'Ring of Fire,' the development must be “fully accepted” by Natives groups living there.
The massive chromite deposits in the 'Ring of Fire' do present a “very exciting” opportunity, provided that the project is properly managed. As Rae explained, the framework agreement between the government and native groups is now finished and affirms that all rights will be respected (even if said rights have not yet been spelled out). At the centre of the discussion will be four main issues: infrastructure, living conditions, the environmental assessment process and revenue sharing. Rather than simply declare the “last pristine territory of the province” off-limits to development, Rae said that we must consult with Native people living there and see what future they envision. “We have left [Native people] to languish for generations” in conditions resembling “any third world country.” Attawapiskat, and other James Bay communities, are in desperate need of infrastructure and stable employment so that residents can control their own lives. This must be an important part of any mining development.
Put simply, by ignoring Native issues, “we have not fully embraced who we are as a people.” Canada's Native population is the fastest-growing demographic in the country, but is disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and at the low end of the income scale. Like it or not, Canada's economic future lies largely in natural resources, but the legacy of injustice towards Native people must be addressed – the land isn't free for the taking.
To conclude, Bob Rae reminded the audience that “we've come a long way,” but that “we have one more step to take.” It is time to talk with Native people, to find out what they want to happen, and then to proceed accordingly.
During the question and answer session at the end, I raised the issue of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, which I argued could help provide the infrastructure needed in the north, even if the province seems to be ignoring it. Rae's response was that we need a “real sense of imagination” for the development of the 'Ring of Fire.' The key issue for transportation is to avoid the “total isolation” of the north and also to include the entire province in the development of transportation networks. As for the ONTC, Rae's feeling was that rail will be crucial for freight in the north, but not for passengers.
Another question asked whether Natives actually wanted to be connected to the rest of the province. On this, Rae explained that the debate is ongoing, and that there is no consensus. However, he did connect mental health issues in the remote communities to a sense of isolation among young people who, thanks to modern communication, can see what they are missing out on.
Lastly, Rae commented on the perennial question in Canadian policy: jurisdiction. By rights, Native issues are constitutionally federal, but Stephen Harper's regime has followed a very narrow interpretation which effectively absolves the federal government of any responsibility for future development by downloading much of the funding and decisions to provincial governments. In Rae's eyes, Harper's policies continue to make reserve life unbearable in a bid to force Natives to move into urban areas and, by extension, to become invisible, thus finishing the government's century-long goal of erasing Canada's indigenous people. If consensus and cooperation are the way forward, then the 'Ring of Fire' is a long way off.
I thought that Bob Rae's lecture offered a very good overview of Native-government relations, but was weak on the 'Ring of Fire' development itself. The reality is that mining companies are slowing their exploration as they perceive the provincial government to be undecided and an unreliable partner. By focusing on Native issues, I believe that Rae helped divert attention away from the untold wealth waiting to be mined and brought the issue back to the people it will affect. This is a laudable stance and it also let him speak to his current role and expertise as a negotiator for Native communities. I felt his assessment of the role of the ONTC was fair, even if I would like to see passenger rail play a larger role in Ontario's transportation policy.
All things considered, I am still undecided about the role of the ONTC (past, present and future) in the development of northern Ontario. It is a lifeline to many remote communities, who now depend on its services to stay connected. However, it was the ONTC (and its predecessors) which created this dependency in the first place. After all, government control over the north was nearly impossible until the coming of the railway.