Chief Dean Sayers, Gil Robertson and Phil Swanson were in court Monday, September 21st,2015, each pleading not guilty to charges imposed by The Crown, Ministry of Attorney General for the Province of Ontario. These three charges are filed under The Provincial Forest Sustainability Act (FSA), Ministry of Natural Resources, and are being heard in the Ontario Court of Justice, Sault Ste. Marie.
Dating back to 2006, logging rights of the three Batchewana First Nation men were challenged by an Ontario government process bogged down in question marks. Two years later, in 2008, formal charges were levied again Chief Dean Sayers, Gil Robertson, and Philip Swanson under legislative codes as they pertain to the FSA. Representing the Crown in Provincial court on Monday was Ministry of the Attorney General Crown Counsel, Brian Wilkie, from southern Ontario.
As the crow flies, and going back over 9 years, in 2006, three men doing what is described by Chief Sayers “as something within their inherent rights”, logging, were investigated by The Ministry of Natural Resources. Two full years later, the three men were charged under a section of the Ontario provincial criminal code called ‘The Forest Sustainability Act’.
(from the FSA)
Purposes: Part 1 of the Forrest Sustainability Act cites the following under ‘General’. “The purposes of this Act are to provide for the sustainability of Crown forests and, in accordance with that objective, to manage Crown forests to meet social, economic and environmental needs of present and future generations. 1994, c. 25, s. 1.
2. (1) In this Act,
“sustainability” means long term Crown forest health. 1994, c. 25, s. 2 (1).
As both Chief of the Batchewana First Nation and Hereditary Chief in the Ojibway Nation Dean Sayers has been working to compel the Crown to come to a common understanding of what the real issues are in the case before the Crown. At play here, is the essence of the charged infractions under the FSA which run contrary to the understanding of Treaty rights by First Nation peoples. The assertion of historical Treaty Rights and obligations, should circumvent any and all of the Forest Sustainability Act. The Crown should not be ‘the stewards’ of the forests in the first place, thereby negating their governance over sustainability.
“We have had a challenging relationship with visitors to our land for a very long time.” shared Chief Sayers at a ceremony and gathering on the front lawn of the Ontario Court of Justice before Monday’s scheduled hearing. “We need to challenge assumed jurisdictions, and in this particular instance we are challenging an assumed jurisdiction over the forest. We have never compromised inherent rights, nor our inherent obligations to our ancestors. We have instructions on how to look after all of the things we see. We are here today about the application of inherited obligations with regards to the forest. We have never extinguished our rights in any way; We assert our right as a people to manage those forests as we were in a habit of doing in a sustainable, non-wasteful way protecting and ensuring the longevity of our brothers, those trees, in all of the forests. We have been managing the forests forever. At a ceremony and gathering prior to the hearing, Chief Sayers was joined by several members from First Nation communities who came together, to smudge, to drum, and to offer acknowledgement and sacred prayers for all of the ancestors of Turtle Island. Chiefs and council members, leaders, elders and members from several First Nations were present including Chief Syrette, Chief Bell, Chief Endenowas (Sheshegwaning First Nation), Manitoulin Island, Manitoba, Wikwemikong, Michipichoten, and The Dakotas.
Speaking to the gathered, Chief Sayers said “Today, we hope for movement in the Canadian justice system that allows for completion of this judicial process, and a course that aligns with the spirit of our treaty rights.” Chief Sayers stated further that ‘We are serious. There has been no extinguishment of our justice system. Our justice system is sitting, waiting to be utilized to try this issue if we do not see a fair and equitable resolution. We are looking at the theft of our logs. the failure of the fulfillment of the fiduciary obligations of the public servants involved. We will seek resolution through our own legal system, which we will exercise if need be. We are prepared to work with international courts to provide another venue where justice for indigenous people(s) can be heard. We are hopeful for reconciliation, and that is the spirit with which I enter court today, with a plea of not guilty.”
Chief Sayers spoke about a process that he hopes will include sincerity towards reconciliation on the part of the province and Crown. “As people we have these jurisdictions already. We never compromised this. During ceremonies for the anniversary of the signing of The Treaty of Niagara last year, (2014) the province, through their representative on that day, assured me that our relationships would improve, and that they were serious about the improvement of those relations and how we can live together. We have to get off of the path we are on. This judicial process is counterproductive and is costing a lot of money on both sides.”
During the hearing, Defence Attorney Jennifer Tremblay-Hall put forward the frustration of the defence, that the Crown was asking for the matter before the court to be put aside for a future date. Before going into the hearing on Monday, Tremblay-Hall was optimistic for an acquittal of all charges, given the extensive length of time this case has taken on the part of the Crown to move before the courts.
Crown counsel Brian Wilkie shared in court “The Crown is challenging the relevance of evidence to be presented.” adding “In the agreed statement of facts (Crown) we assert a discrepancy of certain paragraphs, including 7,12,16.”
Superior Court Justice, theHonourable Justice Kwolek acknowledged that the document in question was written over 7 years ago. Defence counsel Jennifer Tremblay-Hall spoke to the issue of the Crown creating hardship, by bringing further delays as they pertain to the process for the case before the court. “This (delay) poses a significant impact on the lives of the three Batchewana First Nation men.”
While Crown counsel was seeking a date extending well into December,2015 to bring the ‘matter of the language of the motion’ before the Ontario Courts of Justice, Defence counsel, Jennifer Tremblay-Hall challenged the time frame. “Your office (Crown Attorney) has several constitutional law experts to review this case (evidence and legal motions). This matter has gone on long enough.” Indeed. Nine years. Tremblay-Hall’s call for an earlier date were heard. The Crown is to have all documentation filed with the Superior Court of Justice by October 30th,2015.
A trial date for charges 530,529,and 528 filed in the Ontario Court of Justice, Sault Ste. Marie, for infractions under the Forest Sustainability Act, is set for May 16th,2016.
After a brief court hearing, Chief Sayers, Gil Robertson and Phil Swanson left with Defense Counsel to fight another day.
Outside the courthouse Chief Sayers said “This isn’t about land claims. This is about our treaty rights and obligations. This is not about settling.”
In a former interview, Chief Sayers said “We already are stewards for Creation. We don’t own the land. The land owns us.” The journey continues for The Batchewana First Nation, along the righteous road to justice and reconciliation.