Innu First Nation will not back down in fight against Rio Tinto’s IOC

Jean-Claude Therrien Pinette, Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam

(UASHAT MAK MANI-UTENAM, QC) The Innu First Nation of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam wishes to remind potential purchasers of Rio Tinto’s share of Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC) that the Canadian Aboriginal group continues to fiercely oppose IOC’s mining, railway and port operations within their traditional territory. One of the measures the Aboriginal group has taken was to file legal proceedings against IOC on March 18, 2013, along with another aboriginal group, the Innu First Nation of Matimekush-Lac John, asking the Court to block IOC’s operations in Quebec and Labrador as well as to grant them damages in the amount of CAD$900 million – see press release of March 20, 2013.

IOC’s operations on the traditional territory of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam and their Innu brothers and sisters of Matimekush-Lac John have scarred the land as well as people’s lives for more than 60 years now. The Innu are well pas their breaking point and in addition to the above legal action, IOC can expect further acts of opposition in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Rio Tinto continues to seek to sell its majority stake in IOC. And while it is clear that Rio Tinto is looking to offload assets, the Innu First Nation of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam cannot help but feel that Rio Tinto is also seeking to offload the “Innu problem”.

“We simply wish to make clear that any purchaser of Rio Tinto’s stake in IOC will run up against the same fierce opposition that is currently underway against IOC. The conflict will not end until the more than 60 years of injustice we have endured at the hands of IOC comes to an end,” stated Mike McKenzie, Chief of the Innu First Nation of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam.

“While Rio Tinto is looking to move on, our people are not going anywhere. We will still be here, occupying our traditional territory like we always have and unfortunately living with all the negative impacts IOC’s projects have caused and continue to cause,” added Chief McKenzie.

In fact, the Innu First Nation of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam would like to take this opportunity to remind any potential investor looking to do business on their traditional territory (covering much of northeastern Quebec and Labrador) that they will defend to the end the principle that any project on their traditional territory requires their consent.

Automatic Weapons & Guards in Camo: Welcome to Mining Country, Wis.

Mary Annette Pember, Indian Country Today Media Network

Rob Ganson didn’t realize he was living in a war zone. On July 6, he was making his usual Saturday walk to one of the Gogegic Taconite drilling sites in the Penokee Hills. He hikes up there each week to photograph and document activities by the mining company, which has eight drilling sites in the area.

Ojibwe mining opponents have built a Harvest Camp to protest plans by Gogebic Taconite to dig a giant open pit iron ore mine adjacent to the Bad River Reservation in northern Wisconsin. Local tribes, environmentalists and concerned citizens say that the mine will pollute water in the Bad River watershed, home to several rivers that drain into Lake Superior. This pollution, they say, will damage fish, wildlife and wild rice and contribute to decline in quality of life in the region. Harvest camp occupants and supporters are making regular trips to the various exploratory drilling sites in the Penokee Hills in order to document work that GTAC is doing. (Related story: Fighting Mines in Wisconsin: A Radical New Way to Be Radical)

Ganson and his friends had walked about three-quarters of a mile from the Penokee Harvest Camp site to take a look at the most recent site where GTAC is conducting exploratory drilling. “We were just a group of middle-aged folks—we weren’t engaged in any activism. We just wanted to see where GTAC was drilling,” he recalls.

Walking slowly because of his emphysema, Ganson, 55, says he was surprised when he and his four friends approached the drill site and encountered a man dressed head to foot in camouflage, and carrying an assault rifle. Ganson was even more surprised when a second man suddenly appeared behind them in a similar outfit, also carrying an assault rifle. “I was kind of concerned for my wife,” he says. “I didn’t much like her walking into the midst of men carrying machine guns.”

Not a tree hugger (Courtesy Rob Ganson)
Not a tree hugger (Courtesy Rob Ganson)


Despite this unexpected display of firepower, Ganson focused on the job he had come to do: documenting what was happening at the drilling site. He also took some photos of the men.

As he was doing so, Ganson saw another man, also dressed in camouflage, sitting in a UTV parked at the drilling site. He reports that none of the men would speak to him. “I tried to strike up a conversation with them but they wouldn’t’ say a word,” he recalls. As Ganson and his friends approached the site, the first man met them at the entrance, clearly guarding the drilling area. He simply stood there facing them and holding an automatic rifle. Although they made no effort to follow the group; they made it clear that they were there to guard the site.

As Ganson and his group left he told one of the men, “Well, I hope they gave you guys some good mosquito dope.” He says that drew a small smile from the guard.

Paul Demain, co-founder of the Harvest Camp says he saw two men carrying assault rifles and dressed in camouflage during a visit to drilling site number 6 the next evening, on Sunday, July 7. He noted that one of the men was sitting in a vehicle with Arizona state license plates.

Bob Seitz, spokesperson for GTAC confirms that the company has hired security for the drilling sites and that the men have been up in the hills for a while. “These people aren’t supposed to be seen,” he explains. “This is probably the first time that visitors from the Harvest Camp have spotted them.”

He would not disclose whether the guards were employees of GTAC or of a private security company. “I will only say that we do have security on our property to protect our people. These guards are the same that we have had for some time.”

In a July 8 story in the Wisconsin State Journal, Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar said that the guards are from Bulletproof Securities, an Arizona company that boasts a “no compromises security force.” Both Jauch and Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland are writing a letter to GTAC, asking them to withdraw the guards, according to the WSJ article.

Seitz insists the security personnel are not there to intimidate Harvest Camp protesters. “These guards would tell you that they have not impeded any peaceful protest activities,” he says. That statement is difficult to confirm, since the guards refused to talk to Ganson or Demain.

According to Seitz, GTAC hired guards after a June 11 attack by mine protesters on their personnel at one of the drill sites. “About a dozen masked people attacked our rig and barricaded the road so that law enforcement couldn’t get in to help us. They threatened our personnel, a woman and threatened to harm her family.”

A woman from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Katie Kloth, has been charged by the Iron County D.A. for alleged theft and damage to property resulting from the June 11 protest according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled next week for Kloth.

Hunting for rabbits? (Courtesy Rob Ganson)
Hunting for rabbits? (Courtesy Rob Ganson)


Seitz says he does not believe that the occupants of the Harvest Camp are responsible for the violence. He adds, however, that there have been subsequent attacks on GTAC drilling sites but declined to elaborate, saying only that protesters have approached the drilling sites at night. (Related story: Eco-Terrorism or Diversionary Tactics at Harvest Camp?)

According to Seitz, there are several camps of protesters in the woods near the GTAC drilling sites. “We have had surveillance on these camps,” he says. “I am not going to go into detail, however, about our security arrangement.” He claims there have been threats of violent action against GTAC on several Facebook blogs but wouldn’t provide details.

He adds, however, that GTAC has no problems with the people at the Harvest Camp. “We support their right to peacefully protest and have not interfered with that right.”

Speaking about GTAC’s ramped up security measures, Demain told the WSJ, “It’s come to a bad situation when you have to have a machine-gun to protect a business that people around here don’t want.”


Related story: Wisconsin Tribes: What Part of ‘No Mining!’ Don’t You Understand?



Fighting Mines in Wisconsin: A Radical New Way to Be Radical

Mary Annette Pember, Indian Country Today Media Network

A brand new tribe is emerging in Northern Wisconsin. Enrollment requirements for the Penokee tribe are stringent, according to Paul DeMain, co-founder of the Penokee Hills Harvest Camp—they require all members prove they are at least 70 percent water.

Water, the element that unifies all human life, is the binding force behind a surprising coalition of people and organizations near the Great Northern Divide in the Penokee Hills. Although many of these people have had opposing philosophies regarding economic development, they are united in their desire to ensure clean water. Public concern over the impact on the water and environment of a proposed 4.5 mile wide open-pit iron ore mine is creating a whole new tribe and new way to protest. The fictitious, allegorical Penokee Tribe effectively includes all human beings since everyone needs water to survive. The Harvest Camp and inclusive nature of other groups protesting the mine underscores this binding fact. More than a simple protest by occupation, the residents and supporters of the camp demonstrate and include visitors in traditional plant gathering and preparation. The goal is to instill awareness of the natural resources of the area and how they would be affected by the mine.

Despite opposition from citizens, tribes and environmentalists, Wisconsin’s Republican-led legislature passed a mining bill in March that substantially changed the state’s mining regulations. The bill, which was created with major input from Gogebic Taconite lobbyists, streamlines the mining permit process and weakens environmental protections as well as the responsibilities of mining companies to surrounding communities for damages to infrastructures or property. Gobegic Taconite (GTAC) is doing exploratory drilling in the Penokee Hills in order to get samples of iron ore to submit to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to gain permission to proceed with the mining process. If approved, GTAC can then proceed with “mini-mining,” a greater sampling process of about 10,000 tons of rock that would be extracted with explosives.

Recently, groups opposing the mine have taken a novel approach to building support and awareness of this issue. Instead of picketing, they began by educating county board members and talking neighbor-to-neighbor about the real human and community costs of such a mine.

Mining has been pitched in the state as job-creator for the economically strapped northern region of the state, notes citizen journalist Barbara With, a resident of Madeline Island. She and several tribal and citizen groups have worked together to steer the public discussion in another direction. “Instead of jobs, jobs, jobs, we’ve gotten people to begin talking about water, water, water,” she explains.

In June 2013, the Ashland County board, closest local governing authority to the proposed mine, voted to create county mining regulations that require mining companies to obtain special use permits and deposit copy00,000 in a county fund to address problems such as noise, dust, damage to public roads, etc. Further, the county requires mining companies to maintain the fund at $50,000, and make additional payments as needed. Formerly, Ashland County had been an ardent support of the mine.

According to With, the change in attitude by board members was the direct result of grassroots education efforts about the real economic, quality of life and environmental impact of the mine. She credits the more inclusive, educational efforts by tribes and advocates in the area with this change. For instance she noted that last year the Bad River Band of Ojibwe began inviting non-reservation residents to their monthly potlucks that are organized to educate and share information about the potential impact of the mine. The Harvest Camp is also welcoming to the public. More than an occupation alone, the Camp residents and supporters work to inform visitors about the potential impact of mining on the natural habitat. They do this by actively including visitors in traditional harvesting and cooking methods.

With did a risk management presentation to the Ashland County board that included factual information about how businesses need to create risk management plans in order to protect themselves. “I personally went from a combative relationship with the board to one of support and looking at ways I could support and educate them,” she says.

In February, the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe helped created a unique way to draw public attention to the role the Penokee Hills plays in the health of the region by building a Harvest Camp not far from the proposed mining site. An 1842 treaty guarantees hunting, fishing and harvesting rights on ceded territory in the northern third of the state where the Penokee Hills are located. The site of the Harvest Camp is especially important for Wisconsin’s six Ojibwe bands since the area formerly contained almost 200 Indian allotments in the late 1800s that were stolen from Indians in favor of wealthy investors of the original shaft mining in the area. The camp will be open for hunting, fishing, harvesting (wild rice and maple syrup) and public recreational use as defined by treaty and public laws. The public is invited to pitch tents at the camp, join guided tours to the GTAC sample drilling site and participate in the traditional learn.

Residents of the camp are conducting demonstrations to youth and visitors about sustainable harvesting of plants, animals and medicines and in the process drawing attention to the role that clean water plays in a healthy environment. LCO elder Marvin Gasper told Wisconsin Public Radio WPR, “This is a brand-new way [to protest]. It’s a peaceful manner in which we are using a harvest area and showing what can be taken out of this and be saved.”

According to Demain, the camp is immensely popular, drawing visits from racially and socially diverse people. “Grandmothers, kids, county supervisors, journalists are visiting the camp to learn what is going on here,” he says.

Camp leaders also guide visitors to view GTAC’s exploratory drilling sites.

In describing the tribe’s motivation for supporting the Harvest Camp, its website says, “Any activity, mining or otherwise, that threatens water must be the subject of careful and thorough scrutiny so a healthy decision can be made.”

“The water is sacred to our people and vitally important to the survival of all the people in Northern Wisconsin,” says Gordon Thayer, Lac Courte O’reilles (LCO) tribal chair.

Iron County, partially affected by the mine, is also considering passing mining regulations similar to those of Ashland County. A rally is planned for July 1 in Hurley, Wisconsin to draw attention to a public information meeting held by the Zoning Commission about the proposed regulations. The Zoning Commission will pass their recommendations on to the Iron County board that plan to vote on passage of the regulations as soon as this week.

In the past, many Iron County residents and leaders were staunch supporters of mining, especially for its potential of bringing in new jobs. George Myer, former Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources secretary and current executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, recently spoke to citizens in Iron County about the need for county level mining regulations.

He explained that the mine would represent a permanent land use change to the county and that local governments need ordinances to protect the property rights of its citizens and to protect taxpayers from shouldering the short- and long-term costs of a mine not covered by state law.

The public discussion about mining is definitely changing in Northern Wisconsin. On June 21, the Ashland Daily Press reported that Ashland County board chairman Pete Russo who represents the city of Mellen (the closest town to the mining site) said, “There are a lot of people with concerns on impacts [of the mine] on property values. They want guarantees on the water. We need that copy00,000 [from GTAC]. Nobody else will take care of us.”

Such sentiments represent a huge turnaround from 2011, when the board voted unanimously in support of the mine.

GTAC spokesman Bob Seitz told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that such county ordinances were unnecessary and may be impossible to meet since state regulations were already in place. In describing Ashland County’s recently passed mining regulations he said, “What they passed is an open checkbook. There is no limit to what the company would have to pay.”

Frank Kuehn, president of the Penokee Hills Education Project, and others opposed to the mine are skeptical about GTAC’s hints at discontinuing their plans. “I’m not convinced of anything that comes out of GTAC’s mouth. They’ve threatened to leave in the past. At one point they closed their offices but never really left. They may be trying to wait us out.”

In a June 22, 2013 interview with the Cap Times of Madison, With said, “Everybody who thinks this mine is good has been completely hoodwinked, and people in Iron County are waking up to it,” With says. “The tide has really turned up here.”