Premier Wynne has made First Nations a priority during her first year in power, but the true test of her words awaits
By Matthew Pearson, OTTAWA CITIZEN
TORONTO — On the day Kathleen Wynne was sworn in as premier — a year ago Tuesday — she chose to add something a little different to the dry ceremonial program that had been used for the two dozen men who had come before her.
In addition to the presence of Ontario’s lieutenant-governor, a minister and the tones of O Canada, the premier-to-be requested that First Nations traditions be included in the ceremony.
And so it was for the first time on the floor of the Queen’s Park legislature that seven aboriginal women drummed and sang an honour song in Ojibway.
While most of that day’s news reports focused on other firsts — namely, Wynne as the first female premier in Ontario and first openly gay premier in Canada — the inclusion of drummers was in fact more significant to some.
“It sent a signal that we were going to be important as part of her premiership,” said Sylvia Maracle, executive director of the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres.
Wynne makes a point of recognizing which traditional aboriginal territory she’s on at various events and announcements and often ends speeches with “meegwetch,” the Algonquin word for thank you.
She told delegates at an Assembly of First Nations conference in Toronto last week that her relationship with the aboriginal community is of both personal and political importance.
“From our budget to our cabinet discussions to the communities that I visit and the plans that I make, the interests of this relationship and First Nations (and) aboriginal communities are top of my mind.”
But that seemingly principled position could soon have a very pragmatic importance.
Wynne’s government will need to partner with aboriginal communities and workers to reap the vast fortunes many say exist in northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire mineral deposit.
Located 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, the Ring of Fire has been described as “Ontario’s oilsands” and one of the most promising mineral development opportunities the province has seen in almost a century.
Current government estimates suggest there could be enough for several generations of chromite production, as well as significant production of nickel, copper and platinum. It’s reportedly worth $60 billion.
But, as longtime cabinet minister Brad Duguid told the Citizen, turning that potential into a reality won’t happen if aboriginal people are left out.
“It will all come crashing down if there’s not partnership with aboriginal communities, which makes (Wynne’s) approach all the more relevant and effective,” he said.
Ontario has a legal obligation to consult with aboriginals whenever it contemplates actions that may adversely impact asserted or established aboriginal or treaty rights, as outlined in Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution.
The government is currently working out environmental and revenue-sharing agreements with First Nations, with former premier Bob Rae working for aboriginals and former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci serving as the province’s lead negotiator.
Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle said last month the government hopes to have a framework agreement “ready to sign soon.”
There have been hiccups.
Late last year, U.S. mining company Cliffs Natural Resources announced it was suspending its operations in the area, blaming unresolved land claims, environmental assessment issues and a lack of government support for infrastructure and power needs.
Wynne has also failed to convince Prime Minister Stephen Harper to contribute to the estimated $2 billion in costs for industrial infrastructure and all-season access roads.
Both opposition parties have criticized her government for bungling the massive opportunity.
Chief Stan Beardy, Ontario’s highest elected chief and representative to the national Assembly of First Nations, says aboriginals in this province have not sufficiently benefited from past resource extraction activities that occurred on their traditional homelands.
So in order for them to benefit from similar activities in the future, the province must change its legislation, policies and practices around resource revenue-sharing, Beardy said. He said Ontario would also be wise to remember the duty to consult is a legal requirement and that without aboriginal consent and participation, it will be “virtually impossible” to have the economic certainty that investors expect for projects such as the Ring of Fire.
The chief says that recognizing aboriginal territory, as Wynne has done, sends a strong message, but now it’s time for action.
“The next step is to put substance to those words,” he said. “The fact that (Wynne) talks to us is a good step forward, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Maracle says she is also ready for some movement.
When government officials tell her, “it’s only been a year,” she said her response is often, “Yes, but it has been a year.”
She says she wants the government to recognize that the majority of aboriginal people in Ontario now live in urban areas and, as such, create an urban aboriginal strategy or government-wide policy approach. She’d also like aboriginal history to become more of a focus in classrooms and teacher training programs in hopes that non-aboriginals could better understand this distinct history.
“Because I’ve been doing this for so long,” Maracle said, noting she’s been leading her organization for 35 years. “I’m really ready for some change in aboriginal and non-aboriginal relations.”
Like Wynne, Duguid is a former aboriginal affairs minister. He held the post from 2008 to 2010 — the post-Ipperwash days, as he calls them.
Regardless of her portfolio at the time, Wynne was always an ally, said Duguid, who currently serves as the minister of training, colleges and universities.
“She just has an innate understanding of the history and the importance of accepting responsibility as a government to continue to make progress.”
Wynne has suggested the media may not fully understand why she acknowledges traditional territory. It’s natural to consider whether it might have something to do with her stint as aboriginal affairs minister or the fact her three grandchildren are First Nations.
“Collaborative, respectful relationships are the infrastructure that underlies the formation of good public policy,” say speaking notes prepared for an address Wynne gave last summer at a conference on building new relations with indigenous people in Canada. “Without good relationships in place, you cannot achieve results.”
To aboriginal leaders, the importance of such recognition can’t be understated.
“The general population needs that reinforcement that, ‘We are on lands that aboriginal people have traditionally used and occupied, and they didn’t go extinct,” said Gary Lipinski, president of the Métis Nation of Ontario.
The 1995 Ipperwash Crisis saw members of the Stoney Point Ojibway band occupy Ipperwash Provincial Park to lay claim to nearby land that had been taken from them during the Second World War. Ontario Provincial Police killed unarmed native protester Dudley George during one violent confrontation.
Coming out of that period, former premier Dalton McGuinty helped put relations with the province’s aboriginals on stable footing, Lipinski said.
And, to Lipinski’s mind, Wynne has enhanced it by encouraging her ministers to look within their departments for ways to promote, support and work with aboriginal people.
The challenge facing Wynne in the coming months is significant.
By making aboriginal issues such a visible priority, the premier has raised the bar for what she’ll need to accomplish. And she must do it in the context of a province that has a history of sometimes fractious confrontations with its aboriginal populations, with a minority government mired in deficit.
The stakes are high. And if Wynne fails to deliver, aboriginals may be left feeling that the Ojibway honour song, once so historic, ultimately fell on deaf ears.