MAC: Mines and Communities

Echoes of the past

Published by MAC on 2007-08-31

Echoes of the past

A look back at earlier troubles around Sharbot Lake

Andrew Thomson, Ottawa Citizen

31st August 2007

A group of entrepreneurs backed by Ontario government permits on one side, the Algonquins of Frontenac County and their local supporters on the other, clashing over land ownership, the environment, and economic development.

It's a familiar tale to anyone following the dispute over 5,000 hectares that Frontenac Ventures Corp. wants to drill in search of lucrative uranium deposits.

Police and others with a vested interest are closely watching the standoff on a country road north of Sharbot Lake. It's been 12 years since Dudley George was fatally shot by police during a protest at Ipperwash Provincial Park on Labour Day weekend, and just two months since Tyendinaga Mohawks wreaked havoc on roads and rail lines in Deseronto.

Algonquins with long memories are celebrating another anniversary this week. Twenty-six years ago, they fought the province and a group of businessmen to regain control of a natural resource the natives considered their own - the wild rice patch at Mud Lake.

And anyone doubting their tenacity over uranium mining should pull off the road north of Ardoch, a tiny hamlet about 150 kilometres west of Ottawa.

A white slab of rock holds a three-year-old plaque marking the "rice wars" of August 1981, a 27-day protest against the province's plan to issue commercial licences for the rice growing nearby.

Ardoch Algonquins, who had overseen the crop for generations with canoes instead of machines to protect the lake's fish and waterfowl, joined hands with their non-native neighbours to protect their "manomin," or "gift of the creator."

Harold Perry led the protests in 1981 as the Algonquins' rice steward; a century earlier his ancestors planted the seed imported from Rice Lake near Peterborough.

Now 77, and a former Ardoch Algonquin co-chief, Mr. Perry sees parallels to today's standoff over uranium mining, reminiscing in a soft voice outside the protest gate in a camouflaged baseball hat and checkered shirt.

"At that time it was the will of the people, the same as today," he said.

Mud Lake, on provincial Crown land, is one of the highest points between the Ottawa River and Lake Ontario and a historic native meeting point. Aboriginals from Alderville, Curve Lake and other nearby communities would visit to help with the harvest. It was a cultural event as much as an exercise in seasonal agriculture.

Wild rice harvests declined during the 1950s and 1960s. But a careful reseeding project, supervised by Mr. Perry, had rejuvenated the crop by the late 1970s.

At the same time, the Ontario government faced growing calls from commercial harvesters to open up such lands traditionally reserved for native cultivation.

Mud Lake's 45-hectare crop could produce up to 2,700 kilograms of rice annually.

Outsiders saw a lucrative staple under-harvested by the area's Algonquins and Mississaugas, who cultivated the rice for personal consumption.

In 1979, the Ministry of Natural Resources issued a licence to the Lanark Wild Rice Company, operated by Steve and Ken Richardson of Perth, and Cliff Zarecki, a Manitoba harvester. That September, they took 816 kilograms of wild rice, cleaning out Mud Lake with a noisy, paddle-wheel mechanical boat.

Furious residents felt blindsided. They thought a moratorium on provincial licences was still in place. They claimed there was no public consultation and that commercial harvesting had already ruined crops at Mississippi and Calabogie lakes.

No such licence was issued for 1980. But the following year was a different story. Lanark Wild Rice was offered a licence to harvest one-third of the lake's rice.

Outrage again ensued over the alleged secrecy of the ministry's decision. Ardoch was awash with signs - on porches, garages, lawns, fences and the community's only general store - reading "Save the Wild Rice." The Algonquins and their allies forged a media and letter-writing campaign.

A small group of protesters quickly mobilized, stationing themselves as 24-hour guards around the lake one day after the announcement. A week later, they erected log barricades at access points and launches.

Company officials needed police escorts to scout the lake. Their first harvesting attempt on Aug. 29 was blocked by residents in their cars.

The OPP set up roadblocks around Mud Lake on Aug. 30, halting traffic for five hours - residents included - to make sure Lanark Wild Rice wasn't obstructed. All told, there were at least 20 cruisers, a helicopter and four tow trucks along with police and natural resources officials.

In response, protesters took to their canoes and boats to block access. They had been joined by residents and natives from Golden Lake, Deseronto, St. Regis and other nearby bands.

Lanark Wild Rice thought they had located a launch spot for their mechanical harvester. But a Windsor couple claiming ownership of a one-metre strip of land bordering the lake told Mr. Zarecki and Steve Richardson they were on private cottage property and ordered them off.

The OPP pulled back, and violence was averted. Protesters and area politicians later complained excessive force was dispatched to Ardoch; media reports alleged officers pushed their way through residents at a roadblock and detained two people in a police van before being released.

"I don't like calling it a war," Mr. Perry said this week. "The risk was there of people getting hurt, but we were very fortunate."

Then-natural resources minister Alan Pope consented to a public hearing under the Wild Rice Harvesting Act, where scientists were divided on Mud Lake's future capacity, according to Susan DeLisle, who wrote about the standoff as a Queen's University graduate student in 2001.

In 1982, the province abandoned its management claims over the rice crop, and control reverted back to the Algonquins and their supporters, who had formed an association to oversee the harvest.

Hence the plaque, unveiled 22 years later.

The more recent controversy gained steam once the Ardoch and Shabot Obaadjiwan Algonquin First Nations' occupied the entrance to Frontenac Ventures' gated base camp at the property's main entrance on June 28.

Most Ardoch and Shabot Obaadjiwan are non-status Indians, meaning they never signed a treaty to extinguish their land rights in exchange for reserves and services. The apparent confusion over land ownership comes at a time when several Algonquin communities in Ontario are engaged in land claim negotiations with the province. Frontenac's staked land is just part of a vast territory in dispute, stretching from Algonquin Park to the front lawn of Parliament Hill.

Frontenac Ventures says its claim was approved by the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. Several attempts to forge a compromise in court have failed, even though the company pledged to limit its drilling to 20 holes instead of 200, and to carefully place them to limit the effects on groundwater and nearby trapping lines.

The Algonquins argue they weren't consulted about the uranium drilling. A non-native resident tipped them to tree-cutting and road-building on the property.

On Monday night, a Kingston judge issued an injunction ordering the blockade to end. Justice Gordon Thomson ruled that the group of Algonquins and their supporters had to immediately leave the site and allow Frontenac Ventures "unfettered and unobstructed access." He authorized the police to arrest anyone contravening the order, but left matters to their "discretion."

The Ardoch Algonquins, led by co-Chief Paula Sherman, have vowed to remain with their tents and trailers until a uranium moratorium is declared and the provincial government assigns land claim negotiators to Frontenac County. They've appealed to Premier Dalton McGuinty and other senior government officials.

Last week, they also pulled out of injunction proceedings, but vowed to fight a $77-million lawsuit by Frontenac Ventures.

Neal Smitheman, the company's lawyer, sympathizes with the Algonquins' frustration, but said "self-help" isn't the proper remedy while land negotiations continue.

"This (process) takes a long time, and in the meantime cottagers have to drill wells and put in septic tanks, and exploration companies have to do exploration," he said.

"And if you don't like that, there are remedies in law available. To simply take the law in your own hands and occupy a property that does not yet -a nd may not ever - belong to you is just not the way it's done in a free and democratic society."

Six premiers and seven prime ministers have held office since the 1981 rice wars. But those memories remain strong for many Algonquins implanted at the protest site between Clarendon Station and Robertsville.

Robert Lovelace, a former Ardoch Algonquin chief, said the lack of government consultation before issuing Frontenac's mining claim reminds him of the rice standoff. As a community legal aid worker he played a pivotal role, though in 1981 they had the opportunity to call for public hearings under wild rice legislation. And the police didn't bother with court injunctions.

"In those days the (Bill) Davis government pretty much treated the OPP as the palace guard," Mr. Lovelace said this week at the camp. "I think the OPP have recognized that as an organization they have to be very vigilant in terms of reputation and viewing themselves as keepers of the peace."

And much like 1981, area residents have rallied to the Algonquin cause; some vow to go to jail if necessary. Many Frontenac County residents want Ontario's 19th-century laws on subground mining rights updated. Most are concerned that uranium drilling will harm water and soil in the Mississippi River watershed.

"NO URANIUM MINE" signs have sprouted up across the county, and hundreds are involved in fundraising efforts to offset legal costs. More than 4,000 have signed a petition opposing uranium exploration. A smaller group has erected tents outside the camp gate in support.

Residents plan to make the dispute a major election issue, said John Kittle, a retired Ottawa technology worker living along the Mississippi River in North Frontenac. The area Conservative, Liberal and NDP candidates in October's provincial election have all agreed the Algonquin land claim needs resolution before a final solution about mining can be found. Green Party leader Frank de Jong visited the blockade on Monday in a show of support.

While the Algonquins claim to remain unarmed, according to Ms. Sherman, the potential for an Ipperwash-like standoff hasn't been dismissed. OPP officer Ken Deane shot Dudley George, who was unarmed, on Sept. 6, 1995, two days after natives occupied Ipperwash Provincial Park on the shores of Lake Huron near Sarnia. The land claim, over territory the natives said was a sacred burial land, sparked years of controversy.

"There's always the possibility of violence," Mr. Perry admitted. "It's something we have to face up to."

The debate now swirls around a lucrative, potentially radioactive metal - the price of which has skyrocketed in recent years - rather than the tall grass sprouting from Mud Lake that helped fight starvation during the Great Depression and remains a powerful symbol of the Algonquin relationship between man and nature.

The principles, however, remain clear to those refusing to budge from their camp, 25 kilometres from the plaque on the white rock.

"We're not going to allow our land to be destroyed," Mr. Lovelace said.

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