TORONTO - A northwestern Ontario aboriginal community is declaring victory in its 11-year court battle to stop logging on traditional lands — a ruling their lawyer says could have legal implications for similar disputes across Canada.
The Grassy Narrows First Nation challenged the province's right to permit industrial logging on its traditional lands, saying it infringed on their hunting and trapping rights under a treaty they signed in 1873.
The territory cited in the court case — called the Keewatin Lands — is about 51,000 square kilometres.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Mary-Anne Sanderson ruled Tuesday that the province doesn't have the power to interfere with the First Nation's treaty rights, saying it's an area of federal jurisdiction.
The judge's ruling also condemned the federal government for failing to protect aboriginal rights under Treaty 3, said Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Simon Fobister.
"Eleven years is a long time, of course, especially in this particular court battle," he said Wednesday at the Ontario legislature.
"But it was well worth the wait and we're very happy with the decision."
Robert Janes, a lawyer for the First Nation, said the judge noted in her 300-page ruling that the federal government promised to defend their rights, but hasn't done so for many years.
The ruling will likely have legal implications for similar disputes in Ontario — such as the massive Ring of Fire chromite deposit in the north — and in other parts of the country, he said. It may even change government policy.
"Madam Justice Sanderson was very clear that each treaty has its own history, has to be dealt with on its own, but there's clear implications for the other treaties and the way they're to be interpreted," he said.
Sanderson also made it clear that the federal government has a duty to protect the rights of aboriginal people, Janes said.
"That is a very important decision," he said. "That will have implications across the country."
The Ontario government wouldn't immediately say whether it plans to appeal the ruling, but Janes said it likely will.
Former chief and elder Bill Fobister Sr. said he hopes the ruling marks a new beginning where aboriginal groups are consulted by the government about development on their traditional territory.
"Today is a turning point for the First Nations and the federal government to start to work together, the way it was meant to be at the time of the treaty," he said. "And I'm really thankful for that."
Joseph Fobister, one of three trappers who launched the case in 2000, said his people's way of life has been threatened by clearcutting that has contaminated their water and destroyed their lands.
But he wouldn't say if the First Nation will end a blockade it set up in 2002 to stop logging trucks, saying it's up to the community to decide.
Each treaty is different, so it's hard to know whether Tuesday's ruling could impact other disputes, said former NDP leader Howard Hampton, whose riding includes Grassy Narrows.
What is clear is the governing Liberals — who are hoping to win another term Oct. 6 — don't have the kind of relationship with First Nations that they claim they do, he said.
"Their press releases would have you believe that this government is walking hand in glove with First Nations across Ontario and that everything is wonderful," he said.
But Hampton said that doesn't jibe with their decision to forge ahead with the Far North Act over the objections of aboriginal groups, or the jailing of several Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation members in 2008 for their role in blockades aimed at stopping a mining company from entering their territory.
"This is yet another indication that the McGuinty Liberals promise much in terms of working with First Nations, but just consistently drop the ball," Hampton said.
In 2008, AbitibiBowater pulled out of the Whiskey Jack Forest north of Kenora, saying it couldn't wait four more years for the province and the First Nation to agree on logging practices.
The First Nation said it was concerned logging in their territory would resume when Ontario approved a plan in 2009 that identified 27 areas to be clearcut in the Whiskey Jack Forest — 17 of which were more than 260 hectares.
About 800 people live at the Grassy Narrows, or Asubpeeschoseewagong, an Ojibwa community located about 80 kilometres north of Kenora.
The community says residential schools, hydro damming, relocation and mercury contamination of its river system in the 1960s by a paper mill upstream plunged it into extreme poverty and it never recovered.