Friday, August 24, 2007

The Shawn Brant effect

Algonquins staying put: lawyer; Protesters threaten violence if attempts are made to remove them from uranium mine site

Frank Armstrong

Friday, August 24, 2007 - 00:00

Local News - Attempts to forcibly remove a group of Algonquins who are blocking access to a uranium exploration site near Sharbot Lake will be met with violence, one of the group's lawyers warned yesterday.

"If there's an attack on that camp by the OPP or anyone else, there are thousands of volunteers on short notice ready to pour into that site," Chris Reid, lawyer for the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, told a court in Kingston.

Native groups across North America are monitoring the situation and will join the Algonquins if there's any attempt to force them off the land, Reid said.

"If that happens, there will be violence, but it will not be started by our people," he said.

Members of the Algonquin and Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nations have been camped out since June at the entrance to an area of land between Clarendon Station and Mississippi Station that is being prospected for uranium by Frontenac Ventures.

The Algonquins say the land is theirs because, in 1873, the British government signed an agreement proclaiming land not sold to or surrendered to the Crown belongs to their native allies.

Because it's their land, the Algonquins say the provincial government shouldn't have given Frontenac Ventures the right to prospect there and should have consulted them first. They say they're afraid a uranium mine could destroy the local water table and that they won't budge until the provincial government talks to them.

Oakville-based Frontenac Ventures claims it will be in serious financial trouble if it can't soon continue its work. The company is suing the Algonquins for $77 million and has asked the court to remove the Algonquins from the land.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Gordon Thomson issued an order last week that appeared to demand an end to the native occupation, but the OPP refused to co-operate with that order and both Reid and Frontenac Ventures lawyer Neal Smitheman had trouble interpreting it.

Thomson pulled Reid, Smitheman and lawyers representing the OPP and the Ontario attorney general into court yesterday to clarify his order, but a half day of debate didn't shed much more light on his directions and sparked frustration on all sides.

"It dumbfounds me frankly that there's confusion here," Thomson said. "If we went down to the corner of Princess and King streets ... any member of the public would understand exactly."

For the first time in several days of court appearances, however, the lawyers seemed to agree with one another: None of them completely understood the order.

In it, Thomson asks the OPP to control access to the land with a combination lock.

It also says that all signs, vehicles, buildings and other material erected by the protesters must be removed.

The carefully worded 20-page document, says the order isn't intended to prevent "legitimate protest," except that which includes occupation or denial of access to the land.

"It is my view that the public interest requires that the courts do their best not to intervene unless and until there is no other resort available," Thomson writes.

The order was issued last week, but the Algonquins are still camped out on the site.

Frontenac Ventures staff went by the site on Saturday, the day after the deadline for the protesters to leave, but at least two protesters were still there along with three camping trailers, a number of tents, portable toilets, firewood and several flags.

Frontenac Ventures project manager Jamie Fairchild said outside the court that he brought a lock for the gate to the Sharbot Lake OPP detachment, but it was refused.

OPP lawyer Chris Diana told the court that the provincial police force doesn't want to play "gatekeeper" because it would appear as if they were taking sides on the issue.

"That would make it difficult for the OPP to defuse tensions," Diana said.

Because the OPP generally doesn't enforce civil orders, the police force would have to receive court authorization to remove the protesters before it could act, he said, citing the federal Courts of Justice Act.

"They need to know if they are authorized to remove the protesters and if the protesters are allowed to stay on the site," he said. "It appears the protesters will not leave voluntarily."

He added that the OPP were not requesting authorization.

Thomson suggested the protesters might have to move a few metres to put their camp firmly on Crown land and off of private property, but he said they wouldn't necessarily have to leave their camp.

On the other hand, all of their equipment does have to go, as described in the order, the judge said.

After the hearing, Smitheman told reporters outside the courthouse that he thought Thomson had ordered the Algonquins to abandon their blockade, but he found out yesterday that wasn't the case. He said he was "dumbfounded" by the judge's interpretation of the order yesterday.

"What he seems to have said in his order is that access to the property will be restricted, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the people who are occupying the property have to leave right away," Smitheman said.

If the protesters aren't forced to leave the site and the OPP end up locking the site, the protesters will be locked inside, he pointed out.

"What is clear, and his honour made this clear today, is that all the placards and the paraphernalia, vehicles and material are supposed to be removed, but Mr. Reid made it clear that's not going to happen either, so it's an unfortunate situation that we find ourselves in today."

Although a judge will begin hearing the application for a permanent injunction on Sept. 20, Smitheman said his clients don't know what to do from here on in.

"Even if we were to attempt to enforce that order, it still doesn't provide my client with access to the property to do the things that need to be done," he said.

It also doesn't give them an opportunity to sit down and resolve the situation, he said.

"We're not going to spend money and involve ourselves in a violent situation for nothing," he said.

Smitheman described yesterday as a "sad day" because it became apparent that the rule of law isn't going to be obeyed.

Reid insisted at the beginning of yesterday's hearing that his clients do respect the laws of Canada.

He pointed out that none of the Algonquin protesters or their non-native supporters had attended court for the first time and said they no longer want to participate.

"They mean no disrespect to the court at all. They respect Canadian law for the most part," he said. "They don't get much respect in return, but they said they can't be here and ... hear themselves and their elders described as criminals."

With the local Algonquins dropping out of the hearing, a 6,000-person group of Algonquins decided they should step in to represent the interests of this First Nation group regarding the affected land.

Bob Potts, the main negotiator representing a different Algonquin group that has been negotiating with the federal government since 1992 over a land claim that encompasses 14, 000 square miles of land, including the Parliament buildings and the City of Ottawa, made his first court appearance yesterday.

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