Our Response was "Bring It On"
An Interview with Sam Mckay-Council Member of the Kitchnuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation
By Aaron Mercredi, Kerri Goodwin & Maria Aksic
Sam McKay is a councillor for the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation. On March 17th, 2008, he was arrested for contempt of court, along with five other KI community leaders, including Chief Donny Morris. Their crime was that they stood up to an aggressive junior exploration company, Platinex, by not allowing it to enter their lands for exploration activities. After two months, the group that came to be known as the KI-6 were released from jail after a successful appeal of their convictions and by the mounting public pressure across Canada.
With the struggle far from over, the people of KI continue to fight for their inherent rights over their traditional territory, to keep it free from plundering by mining companies and the governments of Ontario and Canada. Fire This Time had an opportunity to sit down and talk with Sam McKay, along with KI community member, Laura Calmwind, about their ongoing struggle at the recent Indigenous Environmental Network conference in Western Shoshone territory, Nevada.
Fire This Time: First, can you tell us who you are and where youíre from?
Sam McKay: My name is Sam McKay. Iím from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI).
Laura Calmwind: Iím Laura Calmwind. Iím also a member of KI.
FTT: Can you tell us about your community?
SM: Weíre situated in the remote North of Ontario, about 500 miles North of Thunder Bay. Itís a fly-in community. There are no roads and you can only travel by plane, other than during the winter road season, which for maybe six weeks or so, you can drive in or out.
FTT: What were the circumstances around your arrest?
SM: We didnít allow an exploratory company, Platinex, to do their exploratory drilling on our traditional territory. The provincial government had given them the permit to go ahead and do the drilling. Then, we had asked them to leave. Then, they turned around and sued us for $10Billion, and eventually they charged us with contempt for not obeying a court order that was given by Justice Smith in Thunder Bay Superior Court, and allowing them to come in to drill, and ordering us not to interfere. We didnít obey that order. So they found us in contempt.
FTT: How long has this struggle with Platinex and the government of Ontario been going on for?
LC: Since the 1980s, they started exploring in that territory. Kind of picking out some areas they would like to explore, it kind of started back then. But it never came to a head until February 2006.
FTT: What happened in February 2006?
SM: Well, we found out that they were already setting up camp at the site. They were all ready to bring in their drilling equipment. Thatís when the community found out, that it was already at that stage and the chief and council members went and informed them that they werenít welcome on our territory and asked them to leave. Thereís a lot of things that happened and it didnít happen right away. It took awhile. Eventually in April we received notice that we were being sued for $10Billion. I said ĎWow, what is that?í (laughs)
LC: After Platinex was asked to leave the territory they turned around and sued the community for $10Billion. I think they were expecting to make that much in revenue if they were allowed to explore for profit. Thatís what I assume anyway.
SM: Thatís what they said anyway. Thereís documentation that their claim is only worth $600,000, so I donít know where they got the $10Billion from. It was just an intimidation tactic.
FTT: When you and the other council members were arrested, what was it like for the people who were back at the community dealing with the fact that their elected leadership was sitting in prison?
SM: Well, there was a bit of turmoil. We tried to prepare the community for the worst because we knew it was going to come to this. And we tried to inform them what to expect, on how to react if it did happen. We also set up a working group cross-section of community members to work in conjunction with the three council members that were left behind. There was a question as to whether we were to still be recognized as leaders when we were behind bars, but then the community had a meeting the day after we got arrested. They had a meeting and the outcome was that we were still the leaders. Thatís the statement that the community put out, that we were still their recognized community leaders.
LC: The place they were incarcerated was close to Thunder Bay. So there are a number of us that live in Thunder Bay, the KI members that live in Thunder Bay, so we formed ourselves into a working group to support the community and the leadership that was incarcerated. So we opened up an office there, the KI sub-office. We continued to do business as usual with chief and council. We would take documentation to them or set up meetings and stuff like that. So it didnít really disrupt in the terms of doing our business in the community. Although there was an impact, the impact was initially felt, but it started to stabilize, so they werenít able to affect us that way. Even INAC (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) was also trying to say that they werenít leaders, you know.
SM: INAC came out and said they wouldnít recognize us as leaders. Because right at the time when we were arrested we were supposed to sign an amended agreement with INAC. Then we got thrown in jail and the next day that issue came up whether we could sign or not and the person that was representing INAC said we couldnít. Our response was ĎBRING IT ON!í (chuckles)
LC: We went ahead and took the documents to them behind bars, me and my brother did. They just signed all of it. We donít need anyone else to sign them. Those are our leaders.
FTT: There is a very strong connection between the case of the KI-6 and Robert Lovelace of the Ardoch Algonquin. Do you think these cases have affected the way the governments of Ontario and Canada will approach future resource and land grabs like this, when they see the response that the people will stand up?
SM: I think that they will, yeah, to a certain extent. But exactly to what extent they will is yet to be seen.
LC: I think what happened there is Ontario got a lot of pressure from the social justice organizations in their own province. There was a lot of support from those groups. Also from other groups that are protesting the Mining Act. The Mining Act for the pre-entry system was also affecting other coalitions and other environmental groups, so there was a collaborative effort of a lot of organizations putting pressure on the provincial government to release KI. But we also got a lot of support from other First Nations across Canada. And plus, the international community was also supporting us. So, Ontario got a lot of pressure, and after that Canada got a lot of pressure because KI went as far as going to the United Nations and making a presentation and interventions, and there was some feedback from there. There was a lady from Switzerland.
SM: Switzerland. And she went to meet with the leader of the Green Party in Switzerland. They went to the legislature and they pressured that government to pressure the Canadian government to release us. We didnít even know that this was going on.
LC: At the UN, Canada was getting beaten up, not only from the KI issue but other Canadian groups there. The Minister of Indian affairs went over there and actually had a press release to try and salvage Canadaís image as a champion of human rights. What they were saying is Canada is not a champion of human rights because I flashed pictures of him in handcuffs and my nephew in handcuffs. They mean that this is proof of violation of human rights in Canada. So, what happens there is Canada and the province can no longer do whatever they want because thereís going to be a backlash from the First Nations communities and also from the people who support human rights and environmental rights. Itís not that easy anymore. Although theyíll try, but they will be dealing with not only with First Nations but also other supporters.
FTT: Now that youíre out of prison, whatís next?
SM: Well, I could give you a copy of my statement. Not my statement, but the KI statement.
LC: What you should know about the KI-6 is that there was another member of the council that had been charged but was going to fight that charge separately, but his case never got to court. They were released. They didnít have a case.
SM: It materialized after we got our appeal. They didnít have a case because he was going to challenge the contempt charges. This is our statement and this is what we are looking for. It is our next steps, these ones here. And thereís a lot of work involved in that. Thatís a very huge undertaking to do all this. Itís just four major components and thereís a lot of work involved in that. What we are doing is we are going to start exercising our sovereignty over our traditional territory. What we are going to do is we are going to start setting up our own laws and start exercising our sovereignty over our traditional territory and were not going to so much recognize the provincial jurisdiction over it. We have already sent a message to the Premier and the Aboriginal Minister that if they want to come to our territory they have to do it under our laws. Thatís the whole project we are working on. Itís going to be all inclusive. Right now itís just with the land issue but the end product is going to be all inclusive. Itís going to be health, itís going to be housing, and itís going to be social programs, education, everything. Weíll stick the end result of what we are starting here. We were kind of forced into that. We were kind of complacent. We were just taking it for granted that we would never be affected this way from the industry because we are so far up North. And it was kind of scary at times because throughout the three years we were struggling we felt so isolated. We didnít really hear from anybody, although we had a few phone calls and a few letters, some people came to see us. But all in all, we didnít have the support we wanted, either from other First Nations communities and stuff like that. We just didnít know what to do but all we knew was we just had to do something. And we did.
FTT: So for the supporters out there, Native and non-Native. Whatís the best way people can support you guys?
SM: For us, what Iíve come to realize is that in order for us to be effective in our struggle we need to educate ourselves. We need to do a lot of research and understand how the governments work, how the industry works, and how they collaborate together and all that based on their policies and registration. We need to understand those things so that we are in a better position to counteract those things that have a negative impact on our community. For people to support us they need to have the same level of understanding and awareness of how the governments and industry operate. So they know exactly what it is that they are supporting and how they can go about providing that support.
LC: Weíre also taking some training in the community with human rights and how to use international instruments. How to push Canada into signing the declaration, things like that. Also direct action planning, and Aboriginal treaty rights, and learning about case law, and learning about our own inherent laws from our own elders, and combining all that to build the community. Not only the people that are in the community, but try to do the outreach to the community that is outside, so that the nation is whole. So that the outside people are not excluded, but are informed and in alliance with the community, so the outside people are networking with the people inside. Because there are a lot of resources outside the community, like myself and other people that live outside the community that want to support the community. We have different areas of education and we can bring that resource to the community. Maybe not necessarily live in the community but to contribute to building the capacity of the community, which is really a positive result out of this whole situation: the community outside working with the community inside. So we are not separated by a decision where they try to divide and conquer the community. Well, we are going to try and come together with everybody involved in our community. Itís going to take some time to do that. It doesnít happen overnight.
FTT: On Facebook, I saw pictures of you guys coming out of the grounds. I wanted to know what you were thinking at that moment when you were walking out of the prison?
SM: That was very emotional for us. Well, first of all we werenít supposed to do what we did, but we walked out. You know, you see that first picture where thereís a big fence and a gate there. Thatís where they want everyone to be picked up, all the prisoners that were released, but we argued for the fact that we wanted to walk out of the compound to the highway to symbolically show that we are leaving the prisons as free people. That alone in itself was very emotional. But also the fact that we were successful. We werenít really sure if we had a victory there but we knew we were walking out before 6 months were over. And it was good for our community, thinking about the reception of the people that were there and also in the community.
LC: Yeah, we organized ourselves to be there, and not only there. There was a lady council member who was at another institute but we had groups to go. It was just fantastic; we were just waiting anxiously for them to come out, we saw them coming out and it was just awesome.
SM: When we were walking out we saw all these people, and, we wanted to run, eh? And grab our garbage bags, our jail luggage. (laughing)
LC: That was the highlight and also when they came out of court. Waiting for us to come, very emotional.
SM: That was a very stressful day when we were in appeals court all day because we started at about 10am and we didnít get out until 5:30pm, it was a long day. Then we walked out free. Thatís amazing.
LC: One of the positive outcomes could be, and we still have to ascertain if it is, is that the Ontario government has released a management plan where they are going to protect certain areas, 225 000 sq. miles of land in Ontario, the boreal forest area. Weíre not certain where that is, if it includes KI territories so we still have to figure out what the government of Ontario is talking about. But Iíve talked to some people; a lot of people are saying that is a direct result of the KI situation. So, hopefully the KI territory is protected. But that still remains to be seen because our area is rich with mineral resources and we know companies want those. Like, we have the mother load of platinum under the community. And platinum is very expensive in the market. So that remains to be seen. Thereís also wording that the minister released that is kind of Luke warm. Like his wording that has to come out Ďprior and informed consentí, Ďmeaningful consultation.í He wasnít using that language and he has to go back to the table with First Nations. We got to get the real thing, the right thing. So thatís something you could be looking forward to. Maybe research and whatís happening in Ontario about that because itís a very new press release. So that can be a positive outcome, or they just might leave KI, or open that area for mining. You know, thatís also a possibility. So we donít know at this point. But hopefully they will protect that area. Because thatís what we are saying, no mining in that area. Weíll see.
FTT: Thanks a lot for the interview.
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