First Nations chiefs declare intent to control forestry operations on traditional land in Whiskey Jack Forest
By Alan S. Hale, Kenora Daily MIner and News
Chiefs from the three First Nations inside the Whiskey Jack Forest signed a declaration on Monday afternoon calling on the provincial government to effectively scrap their current forestry plan and give up control over the logging industry inside the forest to a partnership made up of their communities.
Simon Fobister of Grassy Narrows, Leslie Cameron of Wabuaskang and Howard Kabestra of Whitefish Bay signed the document which frames the call for more aboriginal control as a matter of affirming the sovereignty of First Nations over their own territory as well as their treaty harvesting rights.
The chiefs want the province to transfer the sustainable forest licence for the Whiskey Jack to a partnership made up of all three communities. Forest licences last up to 20 years and would give the communities the exclusive right to harvest all the trees in the licensed area. It would also make them responsible for coming up with a brand new forest management plan as well as monitoring and enforcing the rules on any companies they allowed to operate in the Whiskey Jack.
Although the communities would technically be partners which would hold the logging licence jointly, the declaration states each would respect the others’ autonomy regarding their traditional territories.
“We three communities want to work together as partners the Whiskey Jack sustainable forest licence. We made it clear to the Minister of Natural Resources (David Orazietti) that was our goal and he’s hopefully going to give us a response by April 1 (before the provincial budget),” said Fobister.
“We have been very clear that we want to work together to manage the forest and do so from an environmentally friendly way, and in a way in which our communities will benefit.”
Fobister, Regional Chief Stan Beardy and Treaty 3 Grand Chief Warren White all recently met with Orazietti when in Toronto to make it clear they rejected the current Whiskey Jack Forestry Management Plan the province has spent years creating. Orazietti called the meeting “productive” and said he had agreed to a study to determine how to sustainably log the forest, but hadn’t agreed to the chiefs’ request for a full environmental assessment of the decade-long plan.
The chiefs say allowing the First Nations in the area to run the forestry industry inside the Whiskey Jack would assuage their concerns that allowing logging in the forest would lead to clear-cutting operations which would damage their environment and not adequately protect culturally sensitive areas of the forest.
“We’re not against harvesting timber, just in the manner in which it’s taking place. As native people this land is our mother and we need to protect it. But we’re tired of seeing our resources extracted and not seeing any benefit from it,” said Cameron.
“I think this would be a big step forward, not just for our communities, but all of Treaty 3.”
The chiefs said they have been frustrated with the forestry planning process in the Whiskey Jack because they feel the province has made them an afterthought. This is something Orazietti has denied strenuously in the past, saying he wants First Nations to be involved in the process and for them to directly benefit from the logging operations.
The declaration calls on Ontario to give a response before the government tables its next provincial budget, but even if the government were to agree to the communities’ proposal, the chiefs said the current Supreme Court challenges launched by Grassy Narrows and Wabuaskang against the province’s power to issue logging licences in their territory will still continue.
It was not possible to get a response from the provincial government before press time.