TORONTO - The jailing of seven aboriginal protesters involved in a dispute with a pair of mining companies in Ontario could have been avoided, opposition critics said Thursday as First Nations groups across the country mounted their second annual day of action aimed at drawing attention to everything from land claims to poverty.
A day earlier, the Ontario Court of Appeal reduced the sentences of six leaders of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation to time served, and did the same for one member of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation - freeing them just in time to participate in a day of action rally.
All were jailed for defying a court order to stay out of the way of Platinex Inc. and Frontenac Ventures so they could conduct exploration activities on traditional aboriginal lands.
The aboriginals are calling for changes to Ontario's Mining Act, which allows companies to stake claims to minerals on certain Crown land that doesn't belong to them.
But Ontario NDP Leader Howard Hampton said there's a section in the existing act that would have allowed the government to withdraw specified areas of land from mining exploration and development, thereby avoiding the ensuing embarrassing situation.
"The whole court case, the contempt hearing, the incarceration of those First Nations leaders could have been completely avoided by the (Liberal) government," he said.
"Then there would be some time for real discussion and real negotiation - not with the mining companies, but with the government of Ontario."
However, Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle said that's not exactly the case.
"We can use Section 35 to withdraw sites that have not been previously staked from potential mining development," he said, noting the government did so in Kirkland Lake, where it removed 2,200 hectares that were deemed to be of cultural importance to the local First Nations community.
"Once the claims or stakes have been put in place, we can't withdraw it on that basis."
Still, both Gravelle and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant praised the Appeal Court's decision and agreed the jailings should never have taken place, despite accusations they stood silent on the matter until it became a hot-button issue.
"The jailing was a black cloud hanging over everything, and not just for KI and not just for (Ardoch) Chief (Bob) Lovelace, but all across the province and arguably across the country," Bryant said.
"It should never have happened, but now we can get on with the medium-and long-term work that needs to be done."
Neal Smitheman, a lawyer representing both Frontenac and Platinex, suggested there could be further contempt proceedings if the First Nations leadership breaches court orders again, as they have vowed to do if the companies move forward with their drilling plans.
He said Platinex "does not want to get involved" and is likely to step back and let the province sort things out with the KI community, but Frontenac's course of action "remains to be seen."
Ontario is currently reviewing the Mining Act, but Gravelle would not say how long it would take.
He's also rejected calls for a moratorium on staking of aboriginal land pending the outcome of the review.
Gravelle said many economic factors are involved, and that many aboriginal communities have benefited socially and economically from deals struck with mining companies .
Hampton, however, slammed the government for suggesting they've been negotiating with aboriginal communities all along.
What they've really been doing is helping broker deals between mining companies and First Nations communities, he said.
"The constitutional and legal responsibility to consult and accommodate First Nations is a duty that's placed on the ... government," he said.
"The ... government is actually using this review of the Mining Act as a smoke screen. ... In the meantime, they're going to continue this free-for-all."