The Chiefs of Ontario are calling on the Ford government to repeal the More Homes Built Faster Act, or Bill 23, stating the government’s lack of consultation with First Nations makes the bill unconstitutional.

At a special chiefs assembly hosted by the Assembly of First Nations on Dec. 7, Grand Council Chief Reginald Niganobe of the 39-member Anishinabek Nation also said that Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark had offered to discuss the legislation with Indigenous leaders before it passed, then didn’t follow through with setting up a meeting. 

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Wednesday’s session in Ottawa was attended by five chiefs, some in person and some virtually, from both urban and rural areas of the province. It follows a Nov. 23 statement by Chiefs of Ontario opposing the bill, as well as multiple statements by individual Indigenous leaders. Clark admitted on Nov 29. that the bill passed without Indigenous consultation.

But that wasn’t for lack of trying on First Nations’ part, said Niganobe. He said Clark sent a letter about Bill 23 to Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare on Oct. 25 which included a request to meet with the Chiefs of Ontario to discuss feedback on the proposed legislation. Clark gave the group a Nov. 24 deadline. The bill was passed four days after that deadline, without a meeting.

But Hare replied and agreed to a discussion, Niganobe said. Stating that the bill would have negative impacts on First Nations’ inherent Aboriginal and Treaty Rights, Hare requested a meeting to discuss these concerns with Clark, Premier Doug Ford, Minister of Indigenous Affairs of Ontario Greg Rickford and Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks David Piccini, according to Niganobe.

The lack of response, Niganobe said, shows “the government’s so-called commitment to engage with First Nations is entirely false, and the government needs to be held accountable for the blatant disregard of our nation-to-nation relationship.”

Chief Mary Duckworth of Caldwell First Nation at a Chiefs of Ontario panel discussing Bill 23. The chiefs want the bill repealed because of a lack of Indigenous consultation.
The duty to consult Indigenous nations is a responsibility of the Crown, which means federal and provincial governments, not cities and towns. Even so, Chief Mary Duckworth of Caldwell First Nation is one of many who have been meeting with municipalities to discuss the implications of Bill 23. Photo: Kamara Morozuk / The Narwhal

In a statement to The Narwhal, Clark did not answer questions about whether he had sent the October letter, or neglected to respond to a meeting request. He said the Progressive Conservative government will “continue to engage with Indigenous communities and organizations regarding the impact of Bill 23.” He added that the government is “committed to fulfilling its duty to consult and is focused on creating meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities and partners as we look to advance prosperity for all Ontarians.”

Niganobe said the Ford government has only consulted with Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services, which is a service organization, not a nation with Treaty Rights.

“Minister Clark must be reminded that this does not constitute engagement and consultation with First Nations,” he said.

The Chiefs of Ontario said in an email to The Narwhal that Ford has agreed to meet with them, but that “details and dates of this meeting are to be determined.” Ford did not reply to The Narwhal’s request for comment.

Chiefs say Ford government is pushing Indigenous consultation onto municipalities

Niganobe said Bill 23 also shows the provincial government’s intent “to continue avoiding all their responsibilities” in relation to consultation with First Nations in the province. The government “intended to delegate engagement duties to municipalities,” Niganobe said: last week, Clark told the newsletter Queen’s Park Today that cities and towns “also have a role to deal with our Indigenous Partners.” 

The duty to consult and accommodate First Nations on matters related to their Aboriginal and Treaty Rights under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, rests with the Crown, which includes both provincial and federal governments but not smaller local governments.

“As they have in the past, and as they’ve done with industry, they’re pushing off the responsibility to somebody else to deal with, which is unacceptable,” Niganobe said.

Chief Kelly LaRocca of Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation recently represented her nation and all of the Williams Treaties First Nations at a Pickering council meeting about the Ford government’s move to open the Greenbelt to development.
Chief Kelly LaRocca of Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation recently represented the Williams Treaties First Nations at a Pickering council meeting about the Ford government’s move to open the Greenbelt to development. Photo: supplied by Kelly LaRocca

On Wednesday, Chief Kelly LaRocca of Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation said that although municipalities do have less of a constitutional duty to consult with First Nations, she had seen many city and town councils voice support for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, with some adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Still, she said, “they’re still not consulting adequately and appropriately.” “We really put a call out to those municipalities to do that properly and engage in that work of reconciliation and discussion with First Nations in their respective areas,” LaRocca said.

She and other chiefs have begun seeking out discussions with municipalities regarding Bill 23. LaRocca recently represented her nation and all of the Williams Treaties First Nations at a Pickering council meeting about the Ford government’s move to amend the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act as part of its plan to open up 7,400 acres of land in southern Ontario’s protected Greenbelt to development. 

Chief Mary Duckworth of Caldwell First Nation said the nation has had meetings with municipalities within its territory on Lake Erie, including La Salle, Chatham and Tecumseh, as well as the Essex Region Conservation Authority. The nation has plans to meet with the City of Windsor and the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority next week.

“We look forward to being able to have more conversations around this and with the government to educate them, but also to make it clear that we are not going to stand for this neglect,” Duckworth said.

In an email interview with The Narwhal this week, another Williams Treaty leader, Chief Laurie Carr of Hiawatha First Nation, said that along with Bill 23, she is worried about the effects of other land use policy changes introduced by the Ford government without Indigenous consultation. Those include the amendments to the Greenbelt Plan — “we share concerns of Ontarians of reported conflicts of interest that may have led to this legislation,” Carr said — and changes announced to the province’s wetland evaluation system.

Carr also addressed comments in a leaked government document The Narwhal reported on in early November, which noted that Indigenous communities might react “negatively” if Bill 23 leads to First Nations needing to monitor and consult on an increased volume of development applications without an increase in resources.

“Our Nations are already inundated with consultation requests, underfunded in capacity development to monitor and respond,” said Carr. “It is unconscionable that the provincial government’s primary focus is that we will be more ‘critical’ about fewer protections and loss of cultural heritage when their priority should be focused on their legal obligations as treaty partners including robust consultation.”

Indigenous housing needs not addressed by Ontario’s Bill 23: leaders

One virtual attendant at Wednesday’s session was NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa of Kiiwetinoong in northwestern Ontario, who had brought up the effect of Bill 23 on Indigenous communities at Queen’s Park that morning. There, he asked Piccini about the Ford government’s “failure to engage in dialogue with the rights holders about the duty to consult and accommodate” which he said “makes Bill 23 unlawful at worst and undemocratic at best.”

Rickford responded by saying that the need to address the housing problem for families, including Indigenous communities, means they will “move ahead with a balanced approach … to work with our Indigenous communities and their leadership to ensure the housing opportunities are there for them as well.” 

Chief Rachel Manitowabi, Ogimaa Kwe for Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. The chiefs want Ontario's Bill 23 repealed because of a lack of Indigenous consultation.
Like other chiefs in the province, Rachel Manitowabi, Ogimaa Kwe for Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, said the Ford government hasn’t reached out to discuss how Bill 23 might serve their communities’ housing needs. Photo: Kamara Morozuk / The Narwhal

But just about every chief in attendance on Wednesday said no one in the Ford government had engaged them on how Bill 23 could help resolve the housing problem for Indigenous communities.

“I would invite Premier Ford as well as his government to spend some time in my territory to look at the housing needs in my community,” said Chief Rachel Manitowabi of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, on Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron.

Duckworth also doesn’t believe Bill 23 will solve the housing problem for Indigenous communities. She said the Ontario government is using the “wrong tools” to build 1.5 million houses, including “removing environmental protections and getting rid of sustainable land use planning.”

“The consultation and accommodation seems to be left out in Ontario when it comes to Bill 23,” Duckworth said.

“If you want to build 1.5 million homes, I say build up, but you’re not taking our green spaces, you’re not tearing down our trees and you are not going to poison our water and our air.”

With files from Fatima Syed.

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