Amnesty International expressed its concern today over the sentencing of Ardoch Algonquin First Nation negotiator Bob Lovelace to six months in jail and a fine of $25,000 for his role in a protest over uranium exploration on disputed land in eastern Ontario.
The Ontario government has licensed Frontenac Ventures to carry out exploratory drilling on land that is part of a 25-year-old Algonquin land claim. The Ardoch Algonquin and Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nations have said that they were not even notified about the plans before trees were cut and blasting began.
On June 29, 2007, members of the Ardoch Algonquin and Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nations moved to block Frontenac's access to the site. The occupation ended after the province entered into talks about possible consultation processes, but these talks broke down earlier this month and the blockade was resumed..
On February 15, Lovelace and Ardoch co-chief Paula Sherman were convicted of contempt of court for failing to obey two injunctions against the occupation. While Sherman was able to reach an agreement to avoid jail time if she stays away from the protest, Lovelace has said he cannot make the same commitment.
A number of Algonquin supporters are also expected to be brought to trial in March accused of violating the same injunctions.
"The situation defies justice," says Craig Benjamin, Amnesty International Canada's Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples. "Indigenous leaders and their supporters are facing stiff punishments for doing what they feel is necessary to protect rights that may one day be upheld in court or in the land claims process. Meanwhile the provincial government is ignoring its own legal obligations without any accountability."
Canadian courts have clearly established that whenever the rights of Indigenous peoples may be affected, governments have a legal duty to ensure that there must always be meaningful consultation to identify and accommodate Indigenous concerns. Depending on the potential impacts, courts have found that this legal duty may include other more stringent measures "to avoid irreparable harm", including in some cases agreeing to proceed only with the consent of the affected peoples.
Shortly before the blockade began last summer, a high level provincial inquiry into Indigenous land rights disputes in Ontario concluded that "the single biggest source of frustration, distrust, and ill- feeling among Aboriginal people in Ontario is our failure to deal in a just and expeditious way with breaches of treaty and other legal obligations to First Nations." The Ipperwash Inquiry report went on to recommend that provincial laws, policies and practices must be reformed to ensure that they are consistent with the government\'s legal obligations toward Indigenous peoples, including the duty of consultation, accommodation and consent.
The fact that provincial mining laws and policies are out of step with the constitutional duty of meaningful consultation is acknowledged in a January 2007 discussion paper issued by the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. Despite this, the province continues to allow companies to stake claims and initiate exploration with little or no consideration of Indigenous interests.
In addition to the conflict over uranium mining in eastern Ontario, leaders from the Kitchenuhmaykoosib First Nation in northern Ontario are awaiting sentencing for contempt of court after continuing to oppose drilling activities in the face of an injunction. In the initial ruling in that case, the court sharply criticized the Ontario government for not having "heard or comprehended" repeated court affirmation of the duty of meaningful consultation and accommodation.
Amnesty International is calling on the province to work with Indigenous peoples to undertake immediate reform of provincial laws and policies that fail to respect and uphold the duty of meaningful consultation, accommodation and consent.
The province must also take urgent measures to address conflicts arising from its past failures to uphold that duty including by:
- committing to a negotiated resolution of the dispute;
- entering those negotiations in good faith without prejudging or limiting in advance the form and extent of accommodation required to respect and protect the rights of the Algonquin people; and
- taking measures in collaboration with the Algonquin people to ensure that their rights are not harmed while such negotiations are under way.
In the event of an appeal, Amnesty International urges the province to ensure the court is made fully aware of the underlying rights issues at stake, including the province's constitutional duty of consultation, accommodation and consent.
For more information:
Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Amnesty International Canada
312 Laurier Ave. East,
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 1H9
1.613.744.7667 (ext. 235)