Eagle Lake First Nation members have joined a legal proceeding in court challenging changes the Ford government recently made to Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Act, as part of Bill 197.
“To take away all of these procedural and substantive rights and protections for First Nations, especially without engaging with us in good faith, leaves our aboriginal and treaty rights at risk of being rendered meaningless in many environments,” says Chief Arnold Gardner of Eagle Lake First Nation.
“This is in defiance of our section 35 constitutional rights, the requirement for the Crown to act honourably toward us, and to work toward reconciliation.”
Bill 197 – the COVID-19 Recovery Act - was introduced and passed in July as Ontario moved into Stage 3 of their reopening framework, in the fight against COVID-19.
The new piece of legislation aimed to streamline regulations in a number of sectors, as Ontario leadership said they wanted to reduce ‘red tape’ and ‘open for business’ to kickstart a slowed economy, due to the pandemic.
However, the bill included changes to the Environmental Assessment Act. The changes seek to expedite projects from a 6-year average to 3-years, but won’t be taking land claim settlements and other agreements with First Nation communities into consideration, which were outlined when the original Treaties were signed.
Previously, all public projects automatically required an environmental assessment, unless exempted by the Minister. Now, no public projects require an assessment, unless the Minister decides to designate one, which is not outlined in the act.
“The combined effect of the stripped EAA and the removal of any EAs for forestry going forward, leaves the environment and First Nations who depend on it and connect to it for their very identities and cultures, completely vulnerable to a provincial government that seems intent on pushing us back 40 years,” says lawyer Kate Kempton.
“These changes were rammed through, using the pandemic as an excuse when they have nothing to do with that.”
First Nation communities and Kiiwetinoong MPP and the NDP’s Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation critic, Sol Mamakwa, says communities were not consulted on the changes.
“First Nations have been clear: it is disrespectful to bury legislation that affects our rights and our Treaty lands in omnibus bills like Bill 197,” said Mamakwa, during question period at Queen’s Park earlier this month.
“It is very disappointing that while First Nations have prioritized keeping communities safe during this pandemic, the Ford government felt it was an appropriate time to pass an omnibus bill violating constitutionally protected Indigenous and Treaty rights.”
“Why does this government conduct itself in a manner that disrespects and dishonours the Treaty relationship?”
Mamakwa would later protest the abuse of Treaty rights, by remaining seated during the singing of O Canada and God Save the Queen in Queen’s Park Legislature building, saying the statement was in honour of his ancestors, who signed the original Treaties with the Crown.
Eagle Lake members will join the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, Attawapiskat First Nation, Chapleau Cree First Nation, Fort Albany First Nation, Magnetawan First Nation, Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, Temagami First Nation and Teme-Augama Anishnabai in the case.
“This is not reconciliation between the Crown government that has perpetrated colonialism, and the governments of first peoples who have lived in and protected these environments and lands since time beyond memory,” said Chief Robert Nakogee of Fort Albany First Nation.
“This isn’t de-colonialization. This is deconstruction. First Nations are fighting back. We are seeking to have all of this declared unconstitutional.”
The hearing will be held in Toronto, and is expected to take place in the Spring.