Grassy Narrows First Nation ‘does not deny historical water contamination and accepts it has occurred,’ panel tells Ontario’s gas-fired plant ban – as it happened
The Ontario government should abandon plans to allow mining and exploration near Grassy Narrows First Nation, a panel led by a retired chief justice of the Ontario supreme court has concluded.
It was one of two decisions by the Special Environmental Review Committee (SERC) involving hydroelectric power planning for Grassy Narrows First Nation (NFSW). The other decision will limit how much hydro power can be generated from a proposed wind power plant near the reserve.
The NFSW – nearly 11,000 strong – have been battling for more than a decade to gain some control over the electric grid connected to the high-voltage AC current crossing their reserve.
The battle over hydroelectric power has taken on broader implications for all Ontarians and for people and ecosystems across the province. It has highlighted the complex and contradictory concerns of aboriginal people, environmentalists, rural communities and rural residents about how best to secure Ontario’s electricity future.
In March, Ontario’s minister of natural resources and forestry promised to repeal a 2013 law that prevented Ontario Gas Transmission (OGT) from buying power from First Nations, effectively insulating large corporations from the risk of litigation. At the time, the minister said this decision would “end the years of unnecessary, protracted and uncertain litigations” surrounding hydro projects in Grassy Narrows.
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On Wednesday, the chair of the committee cited the substantial benefits that Grassy Narrows is receiving as an argument against establishing an independent corporation – a process that allows local First Nations to join forces with large corporations to support and participate in land acquisition and renewable energy development.
“These wind development projects that are proposed near the reserve, including the proposed Wyandel wind project, do not change the historical water contamination. The local First Nations do not deny historical water contamination and accept it has occurred,” the committee ruled.
The panel did agree to establish an independent company, Grassy Narrows Water Resources Inc, made up of local First Nations, private companies and shareholders, as a new hydro development licensee.
But it said Grassy Narrows must remain within the province’s regulatory framework, so that its interests are first considered and respected. This decision aligns with the approach put forward by Grassy Narrows in its submissions to the committee.
Grassy Narrows president Richard Trapani said the NFSW was confident the government will act on the committee’s recommendations.
“This will mean that a corporate entity of First Nations can now be established in order to benefit all its citizens and it still would not avoid liability and hold responsible for any water contamination that may be the consequence of the way hydro development plans proceed in the region,” he said.
While granting First Nations input to development decisions is seen as a progressive step, detractors of land use planning believe it allows corporations to get a win-win deal without recourse to democratic processes.
Ian Griffin, who is leading the Grassy Narrows campaign to fight the planned gas-fired power station, said the committee’s decision had been delayed and discussed for so long that it was not surprising that it did not consider the potential harms of further development.
“The ultimate solution was in large part tied to the dismantling of our traditional way of life,” Griffin said. “Hike up the banks to Grassy Narrows, it’s a replica of an Algonquin village we lost over 400 years ago, a long walk through thick foliage. The forest looks and feels eerily like what we had in the 12th and 13th centuries.”
Griffin said it was unclear whether an independent water services company would be created, and whether it would still force First Nations to consent to hydro projects on their traditional territories. “That would be a solution I would support, but I am not sure it’s possible at this point,” he said.
Grassy Narrows is fighting other hydro projects in the region. Ontario’s planning and development committee has approved 42 hydroelectric projects totalling 15,000MW of capacity in the region.
Grassy Narrows has asked for 15GW of capacity be excluded. The government announced it would implement that in April.