My previous entry ("The Sharbot Lake standoff and economic faith") made the connection between our general societal expectations of perpetual economic growth and the current dispute between the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation and a private mining firm that wants to prospect for uranium on land the Ontario government considers "crown land" but that the Algonquin argue has always been theirs.
The Sharbot Lake standoff provides an excellent example of how habitual overconsumption leads not only to needless pollution but also to social unrest and physical conflict. We don't need to look as far as the oil war in Iraq - our own seemingly banal desire for air conditioning and electronic gadgetry is creating major problems right in our own backyard.
The Liberal government's proposed $46 billion expansion of Ontario nuclear facilities isn't the only reason that the private mining firm Frontenac Ventures is looking to mine eastern Ontario, of course. Industrial and nuclear expansion worldwide has created a seller's market for mining products, and uranium prices in particular are through the roof. Frontenac had been planning to invest over $70 million in the contentious project, and have launched a lawsuit against the area's First Nations for an equal amount in lost business should the project be prevented from going ahead. Prior to launching the lawsuit, Frontenac had offered the bands $10,000 as compensation, a tiny fraction of their potential profits - a proposal which was quickly rejected.
Frontenac had asked the Superior Court of Ontario to order the Algonquin people off their access area, but two weeks later the judge has yet to make a decision on the case. A full hearing is scheduled to begin Sept. 20, but this week the Algonquins issued a press release stating that they are withdrawing from the legal proceedings and appealing directly to the Premier to step in and resolve the situation.
The Liberal management of the Ontario energy sector isn't looking much better than the previous PC government's. The botched handling of the regulation and degregulation of electricity prices discredited the Harris/Eves government and played a large part in the Liberals' winning of a majority in 2003. This week it was revealed that John Beck, top executive at Canada's largest construction firm, Aecon, has been elected chair of the Ontario Power Authority. Aecon has already been contracted for $75 million worth of power construction projects and has $100 million more lined up, including operations at the Bruce Nuclear facility. Aecon's profits are up 30% over last year, according to recent business reports.
The same sorts of conflicts-of-interest can be found behind the scenes in the Sharbot Lake standoff. The market for uranium isn't just power plants - it also fuels nuclear weaponry. The Sharbot Lake area is also home to a facility run by a company called Mining Resources Engineering Limited (MREL) which tests explosives for both mining and military use. Its clients include major players in the weapons industry, such as Canadian weapons manufacturer Allen-Vanguard, which sells to not only the RCMP but to the FBI, the US Army, and to military operations worldwide. Peter Deane, the OPP officer who shot and killed First Nations protestor Dudley George in 1995 at Ipperwash, ended up working as a sales manager for Allen-Vanguard after being obliged to resign from the OPP in 1997. The OPP and the Province are handling the Sharbot Lake situation delicately to avoid a repeat of the Ipperwash tragedy.
The MP for the area is none other than Gordon O'Connor, the man who was removed from his post as Minister for Defence in the latest federal cabinet shuffle, and has never lived in the riding. O'Connor spent most of his career as an officer in the Canadian military and was first elected to represent the riding of Carleton-Mississippi Mills in 2004. In between he worked for the infamous and unscrupulous public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, the very firm employed by Kuwait and the US government to persuade the American citizens to back the first invasion of Iraq in 1990. O'Connor has also been a lobbyist for the arms industry, and in the eighteen months he spent with the Defence portfolio the Canadian government spent $17 billion on big-ticket military hardware.
Predictably, the politically inexperienced minister proved incompetent at the helm and became a public relations headache for the Prime Minister's office, and this week was replaced as Defence Minister by Peter MacKay. MacKay, who was the final leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada before it was swallowed by the Alliance to create the current Conservative Party, is MP for the Antigonish-area federal riding in Nova Scotia, and will be challenged in the next federal election by none other than Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May. The general dissatisfaction with the way Canada's mission in Afghanistan has unfolded may make MacKay a lightning rod for criticism and help May's chances of being the first Green MP in Canadian history. Hopefully their campaigns will draw attention to the many ties between armed conflict, ecological destruction, and our relentless desire for economic expansion.
The Algonquin have never ceded their ancestral land to the Crown, and as such claim to be its governing authority. The Province of Ontario has not only historically claimed ownership of all non-privately-held lands, but also has been held to have ownership of all subsurface mining rights across the province, and the power to grant exploration and mining privileges to private corporations at its discretion. This power is based on the idea that mining overrides any other possible use of the land. Non-native private land owners in the area have no ability to prevent Frontenac from coming onto their land and drilling holes for uranium 500 feet deep. Only the Algonquin have a legal privilege which may supersede the power of the Mining Act.
Thus the conflict here is not only between a local community and a private corporation looking to make big profits, but between the 19th century belief that digging up metals is always the best use of land and the 21st century knowledge that virtually everything we pull up from the depths of the earth is poisonous to what lives on the surface. The outcome of this case may well be precedent-setting, not only in the area of First Nations self-governance, but also with regard to mining and ecological integrity.
Now that the onus is on Premier McGuinty, it will be interesting to see which side he chooses. Will he decide in favour of short-term profits for the nuclear, weapons and construction industry whose many players have no doubt been generous in making campaign contributions to the Liberal party? Or will he decide in favour of preserving the well-being of the citizens of Eastern Ontario, including the Algonquin, today and into the distant future?
The conflict between local communities and private developers can be seen across the province on various levels. On Monday I'll discuss the way that the Ontario Municipal Board, supposedly an independent judicial body which rules on disputes between the two, has created an environment in which municipalities are actually afraid to say no to development they don't want for fear of losing at the OMB.