Onkwehonwe Week in Review: September 7, 2016

Opaskwayak Cree trappers and fishers blockade highway over failed negotiations

Near Gillam, Manitoba, the local Cree Fur Council and and the Opaskwayak Commercial Fishery Co-op shut down the highway, stopping trucks and equipment headed towards a massive hydro-electric development project. Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask generating station is one of several dams operating in Northern Manitoba. Several First Nations and Metis people have already negotiated settlements with the province and Manitoba Hydro but for the past nine years, trapping and fishing groups have attempted to negotiate their own settlement. These talks broke down two weeks ago.

In 1960, the Grand Rapids generating station was built on the Saskatchewan River. It took more than five years to build. “This is for the land that was damaged in 1960 – 1.5 million acres of prime trapping and fishing areas when Hydro built the Grand Rapids hydro generating station,” said John Morrisseau from Grand Rapids. The project required thousands of kilometres of land to be flooded. Because of the changed landscape, trappers and fishers have had to travel up to 150 kilometres to maintain their livelihood. Some people were unable to keep up, so they lost their ability to provide in substantial ways for themselves and their families.

The conflict remains rooted in a dispute over how many fishers are trappers are eligible for compensation. Manitoba Hydro chooses to only compensate 59 fishers and 150 trappers but First Nations say that hundreds more were impacted and should also be eligible. According to Manitoba Hydro’s spokesperson Scott Powell, it was the fishers and trappers who walked away from the negotiating table. “We’ll stay here as long as it takes to get Hydro at the negotiating table,” said Morrissseau.


Neskantanga First Nation issues ‘Cease and Desist’ order to mining company

NorOnt Resources plans to drill for nickel, copper and platinum in Northern Ontario’s “Ring of Fire” region. The Ring of Fire is a mineral rich area in the James Bay lowlands, it is also the third largest wetland in the world. It covers 5000 square kilometres spanning northern Ontario. The area was renamed by Richard Nemis after Johnny Cash’s famous song when the first significant mineral deposits were found in 2007.

Despite corporate plans to drill in the area, Neskantanga Chief William Moonias said it’s not going to happen. “It’s offensive on our end to receive a notice that’s basically telling us ‘by the way we’re going to be drilling,’” he said. “They haven’t asked us for our consent, they haven’t engaged with us in a way that we expect, so it is very troubling.”

It remains that Ontario’s Mining Act requires consultation. According to Bob Rae, former Member of Parliament and current negotiator for First Nations interests in mining projects, “It is long past the point where governments can proceed with development without the full support of First Nations.” NorOnt’s drilling projects were slated to begin at the end of August.

The president of NorOnt, Al Coutts said that there is no plan to delay the drilling. “Not all First Nation communities are aligned and see eye to eye on things,” he said. “What we’ve done is work closely with Marten Falls and Webequie and we recently had a group of elders from both of those communities visit the site and get comfortable with what we are doing.” Despite these divide and conquer techniques, Chief Wayne Moonias remains steadfast, writing a letter to NorOnt, telling the company it must ‘cease and desist’ because it doesn’t have the community’s consent to drill.

“You try to make the best efforts you can to communicate your activities and be clear about what you plan and live up to some of those commitments,” Coutts said. Chief Moonias disregards Coutt’s non-committal statement pointing out that NorOnt has ignored an engagement protocol and a development process that Neskantanga has in place.

“We need to get our First Nations involved in ways that they are informed decision makers,” Moonias said. “This has not occurred with this particular company.” Moonias also wonders why the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is being ignored by the federal government. “The fact that the company can just go into an area where they don’t have the consent or involvement of First Nations – it is unacceptable for the government to be issuing these permits.”


Provincial government suggests housing foster children in empty youth criminal facilities

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Chief Alvin Fiddler has responded to Ontario’s suggestion that children in foster care should be housed in empty youth criminal justice facilities saying that “putting children in local criminal facilities is like putting them in jail and it is not a solution.” Ontario is currently undergoing an ongoing and sweeping review of the residential services provided for all children in care. One of the goals of the review is to keep foster children closet to the Northern Ontario communities they come from. However, the lack of facilities in Northern Ontario means that they are often sent down south.

Ontario’s Youth Advocate Fiddler’s assertion that the province isn’t doing good enough. “My mother may have to go into a senior’s home someday soon,” Elman said. “What if somebody in the province came to her and said, ‘I know there’s a prison down the street, we could put you in there.’ That is not acceptable for my mom, why should it be acceptable for children?” Both Fiddler and Elman want to see better supports in place to keep Indigenous children close to home.

A spokesperson for the Minister of Children and Youth Services says the entire system is under review and no decisions have been made. According to Mary Ellen Beninger, Ministry spokesperson, the number of youths in custody has fallen by almost 80 per cent since 2003, leaving these youth criminal justice facilities empty.  At the same time, there is a shortage of foster, treatment and group homes in the north. “We are currently exploring all options to make better use of these facilities,” Beninger said.

However, Karen Hill, the director of Aboriginal Services with the Ontario Association of Children’s  Aid Societies said that the goal of keeping Indigenous youth close to home is a worthy one. “I understand the pressures of the Ministry, too,” Hill said. “There are such limitations on the current system right now with northern communities being forced to send their kids south.”

But the option of using criminal facilities is the wrong approach.

“They’re really marginalized and stuck in these places. We seem to be just Band-Aiding the situation. It’s not a good choice,” Hill said.

Ontario decided to overhaul it’s residential services for youth after reports from Ontario’s Youth Advocate and a Toronto Star investigation “found a youth protection system that repeatedly failed to ensure vulnerable children were getting quality care.”

Chief Alvin Fiddler points out that the reports and investigations are missing the larger picture. “I think it’s dangerous and we should be empowering our families and our communities,” he said. Fiddler also identifies the lack of commitment and action by the federal government towards helping to heal the societal hurts that plague the well being of Indigenous communities, instead they focus on “thinking up ways to take Indigenous children from their families.”

“What we’re more concerned with is the long-term solution. We need to move beyond these short-term emergency measures,” he said.

According to the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, a monthly average of 14, 539 children were in provincial care in 2014/15 with 2, 299 from Northern Ontario, with many of them being Indigenous.


Winnipeg school implements Ojibway immersion in a mainstream school

A new language program has been implemented in Isaac Brook school in the west end of Winnipeg, Manitoba.  Kindergarten students will begin the new year being taught entirely in Ojibway or Cree.

“I think it’s been a dream for a lot of people for a long time to have heritage languages spoken at school.” said Rob Riel, Winnipeg School Division’s director of Aboriginal Education and Newcomer Services.

“Having kindergarten students be able to speak the language of their parents and grandparents is tremendous.”  Students will be taught to speak in Ojibway and Cree, as well as being taught how to read and write in the respective languages. Manitoba’s curriculum will be like any other kindergarten class except it will be followed through the eyes of Cree and Ojibway teachers.

“They will be starting off the morning with the smudge,” Riel said. “Then there are curriculum outcomes that will be met by smudging with regards to counting and colours and days of the week and seasons and things like that.”

“It’s safe to say that this program is not going to fail,” Riel said. “There’s been many people supporting it. I think with the traditional start we’ve had by putting out tobacco only good things are going to happen.” The program will eventually expand to include Grades one to six.  Teachers who are fluent in the languages and cultures usually stay close to home but the interest in this program was overwhelming. “Our toughest was selecting, we had many names to go from,” Riel said.  The school looks forward to opening next week.

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