COLUMN: Bill 23 puts First Nations in a ‘dangerous’ place
Every morning for what seemed like decades, Alfred King would rise up before the sun at his home on Christian Island in Georgian Bay. He would make himself a big bowl of porridge before sitting down at the dining room table to eat. It was his morning ritual. He would eat quietly trying not to wake his family still sleeping snugly in their beds.
After breakfast, he would head into the porch where he would pull on his hip waders before heading outside to hop into his pickup truck. He drove down into the village to pick up his younger brother, J.R., and together they would drive to the shoreline where their small 12-foot aluminum boat waited for them.
Alfred would push the boat out into Georgian Bay and he and J.R. would venture out into the deep water to lift their fishing nets. They both loved the quiet of the bay on those early mornings as the sun would rise above the horizon illuminating their quest to sustain themselves.
This ritual would be repeated day after day, season after season, in the same manner as their ancestors did.
Some of the daily catch would go to feed their families. Some would be offered to the elders of the community. But the bulk of their daily catch would be placed into metal tubs which they would later transfer from their pickup onto the ferry that travelled between Christian Island and the mainland.
Alfred would become a part of the local economy as he would find buyers for his fish. Restaurant owners in nearby towns of Midland and Penetanguishene, as well as cottagers along the shores of Tiny Township were his main customers.
Of course, the daily haul was never guaranteed. There were so many factors that went into making a successful catch and a weekly pay. Weather played a big role as the catch depended on mild waters with slight winds. That wasn’t always the case and he and J.R. would risk venturing out into cold, choppy waters in order to feed their families.
This was the ritual until one day Alfred and seven other fisherman from Christian Island would be the victims of a sting operation put together by the Ontario government through the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Unbeknownst to Alfred and his fellow harvesters, they had been under surveillance for the better part of a year and they were each charged with illegally fishing and illegally selling their catch for commercial purposes.
The Ontario government sent their conservation officers onto Christian Island and, at gunpoint, they would search vehicles looking for evidence of anyone else involved in fishing.
The community leadership was not ever consulted by the Ontario government to warn of these new measures. The measures were in direct violation of the Treaty partnership that the people of Christian Island had with the government of Ontario. The relationship became a tense one and the rights of the villagers were violated on a continuous basis as the ministry officials ramped up their intimidation tactics unchallenged.
I’m not sure if anyone would know what it is like to have your livelihood constantly snatched away. These First Nation harvesters not only lost their jobs, but they also had their means to it taken away as all their fishing equipment was also confiscated by the Ontario government through the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Many were left without a means to provide for their families. If they felt anything at all, it was loss. Just like their fathers whose right to hunt in their ancestral territories had been outlawed, they too became the victims of a government determined to rid them of their rights to harvest fish in their ancestral waters.
It has been my experience that colonial governments create laws to benefit themselves. Governments will often change those laws, also to benefit themselves. Governments even break their own laws, again, for their own benefit. In doing so, they also break hearts and lives.
It was at this same time that I was elected as Chief Councilor of Christian Island. Fresh out of the military, I was appalled at the treatment of our people by the Ministry of Natural Resources. It was demeaning and I felt that the colonial government had overstepped their boundaries and we, as a people, as a First Nation, as a Treaty partner, needed to push back.
As a council we organized a meeting of our embattled harvesters. They were an angry bunch and we feared violence. Something had to be done.
So we drafted a letter advising the Ontario government that their conservation officers were no longer welcome on Christian Island unless they were accompanied by the Chief or an elected delegate. We informed them that we could not guarantee their safety and as such when conservation officers attended our community they would be required to leave their weapons on their boat.
We advised the Ontario government that we would now require them to consult with our leadership before any further measures were taken regarding our commercial harvesters.
The duty to consult was written into the Constitution of Canada, after all. And the duty to consult had been upheld by Canada and Ontario’s judiciary numerous times since that law was entrenched into the Constitution. We also advised Ontario that as a Council we would organize a fund to help the charged fishermen in court.
We eventually won our day in court. The presiding judge ruled that Ontario was in violation of our rights to harvest commercially or for ceremonial purpose within our ancestral lands. The ability to do so was protected under section 83 of the Canadian Constitution. All charges against our harvesters were dropped.
Ontario was informed by the court that going forward they would need to consult with us in a meaningful way before carrying out operations in our ancestral territory.
After I was elected Chief of my community, I set about negotiating harvesting agreements for commercial and ceremonial harvesters within our ancestral territory. That was the 1990’s and those agreements with the province still stand today.
And as I rise from my bed this morning, unlike my father Alfred King, I am not a fisherman. Nor am I an NDP, Conservative or Liberal. I am an Indigenous person who must daily scan the horizon and constantly be vigilant of the Ontario government’s obligation to consult with First Nations people in Ontario and guard against any arbitrary intrusion into our Treaty territories.
I am very much aware that with the passing of a recent Bill in Ontario, Bill 23, Ontario is in violation of its duty to consult. Duty to consult is an obligation set out by their courts and contained in their Constitution. This is an obligation that they themselves have devoted government websites to, explaining what that means. This is an obligation that they overlook when it suits their purpose.
How are we to respect the laws you create when you can’t?
So, once again we are at this place where First Nations peoples’ rights are in jeopardy. Unnecessarily so. It is a dangerous and precarious place to be. But sadly, for First Nations people, it is an all too familiar place. It is a disheartening place.
We are your Treaty partners. Our rights are supposedly protected in your constitution. As such, First Nations are not some special interest groups that can be bulldozed to the side and dealt with later. The laws to that regard are clear and concise.
In the case of Bill 23, the people of Ontario, our Treaty partners, must remind their elected government that to protect one another from years of grief, the duty to consult comes first. Not afterward!
Jeff Monague is a former Chief of the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island, former Treaty Research Director with the Anishnabek (Union of Ontario Indians), and veteran of the Canadian Forces. Monague, who taught the Ojibwe language with the Simcoe County District School Board and Georgian College, is currently the manager of Springwater Provincial Park. His column appears every other Tuesday.