Election rivals blame McGuinty for aboriginal tensions

September 15, 2007
Canadian Press

TORONTO

Long-simmering tensions between aboriginal communities and local Ontario residents spilled on to the campaign trail yesterday as Dalton McGuinty's rivals accused the Liberal premier of abdicating his responsibility to uphold the rule of law and deal fairly with First Nations.

Two days after McGuinty was confronted by a developer angry over the province's handling of a dispute with Six Nations protesters in Caledonia, near Hamilton, a home builder was recovering from head injuries yesterday after being beaten by aboriginal youths a day earlier.

McGuinty has steadfastly blamed Ottawa for the protracted conflict, something he did again during a campaign stop yesterday in Sudbury.

"The conflict to be found with respect to rights here originates in a very old dispute between the First Nations community and the federal government,'' McGuinty said.

"The only way we're going to be able to resolve this with any finality, with any certainty, is to get the two major parties at the table, which is the federal government and the First Nations community.''

But Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory and NDP Leader Howard Hampton accused the Liberals of going missing in action on the Caledonia file.

"They have asserted no leadership in terms of trying to assert the rule of law and the importance of the rule of the law being maintained at all times by all people, regardless of who they are,'' Tory said.

A Conservative government would sue those who create a public disturbance to recoup the "huge public expense'' of having police keep order, he said.

"I would use the courts any way that we could to make sure that if people are doing things that are in violation of the law and can have civil actions brought against them in that regard, then we would do that.''

On Thursday, an otherwise peaceful First Nations protest at a different housing development not far from Hamilton turned ugly when a builder was found beaten and unconscious.

It was just the latest in a slew of incidents involving aboriginal protesters in Ontario over the last two years.

In one of the highest-profile disputes, First Nations protesters occupied a housing development in Caledonia -- just one kilometre from Thursday's incident -- in February 2006. The province has since purchased the land, but the occupation has continued, to the chagrin of locals.

Several other blockades this summer in eastern Ontario halted train travel on the busy Toronto-Montreal rail corridor, while Algonquin protesters have barricaded a proposed uranium site near Sharbot Lake, Ont., despite a judge's order to stop.

Other aboriginals in northwestern Ontario have repeatedly blockaded the Trans-Canada Highway to protest logging on what they consider to be their traditional lands.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Hampton said Tory's notion of civil lawsuits would do little more than "turn up the heat'' and fan the flames of conflict.

Instead, an NDP government would hire former Ontario lieutenant-governor James Bartleman, an aboriginal himself with great credibility and diplomatic skill, to get involved.

"I would ask him to specifically engage in the Caledonia issue -- as the mediator, conciliator, fact finder -- to sit down with both sides and to try to find where there's middle ground,'' Hampton said.

"What an NDP government would do (is) honour those constitutional and legal decisions that have laid out certain guide posts for governments to act by, which the McGuinty government has failed to do.''

Elsewhere on the campaign trail yesterday, talk about mass transit surfaced as McGuinty disclosed that the province and Bombardier were in talks to build one of the world's first hydrogen-powered commuter trains.

Such a train could be used by GO Transit to ferry commuters, ease environmental damage and create jobs, McGuinty said.

For his part, Tory was in Toronto -- a city where he enjoys strong support after a surprisingly robust showing in his 2003 mayoral campaign -- to woo voters with promises of millions for public transit.

The Liberals wasted little time denouncing Tory's plan as inadequate, recalling that the previous Conservative government had slashed transit funding.

Hampton, meanwhile, also touted the NDP's plans for "right to know'' legislation that would force manufacturers to list toxins on product labels for products such as toys, food and makeup.

The aim of the third of six major NDP policy announcements would be to encourage manufacturers to find alternatives, Hampton said.

Tory said he would be open to a similar policy.

Hampton said the NDP would also set up an online database to let residents know about pollutants in their community.

"If people don't know what's being stored or what's being used in their neighbourhood, they don't have that critical piece of information that allows them to take action,'' he said.

McGuinty, meanwhile, continued to attack his principal rival's weakest flank Friday in an effort to keep the unpopular Conservative plan to provide public funding to faith-based schools on the agenda.