Vanloffeld eyes Indigenous consent in development

Paul Mayne//Western News

Western Geography PhD student Steven Vanloffeld stands among only 20 individuals nationwide to be named Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholars, a doctoral scholarship program focused on the social sciences and humanities.

Unprecedented. Overdue. Groundbreaking.

However you describe it, Steven Vanloffeld is personally – and academically – invested in creating and sharing a blueprint to re-establish Indigenous voices around the world on development projects affecting their lands and territory.

To further that work, the Western Geography PhD student recently received one of the country’s highest graduate student honours.

Along with fellow Geography PhD student Vanessa Ambtman-Smith, Vanloffeld stand among only 20 individuals nationwide to be named 2019 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholars, a doctoral scholarship program focused on the social sciences and humanities. Trudeau Scholars receive $60,000 bursaries annually, for three years, to subsidize tuition fees and living expenses and allow the students to travel for research and scholarly networking and knowledge dissemination.

Scholars were chosen for their work within four themes: Human rights and dignity; responsible citizenship; Canada and the world; people and their natural environments.

Vanloffeld explores how Indigenous Peoples have been systematically marginalized from decision-making related to land development and resource allocation in their own territories, and how that voice is returning to the table.

For Vanloffeld, the work has deep, personal roots.

In 1967, the Douglas Point Nuclear Power Generation Station began operations in the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation without the consent of the local Indigenous peoples.

Saugeen Ojibway Nation – composed of the Chippewas of Saugeen and Chippewas of Nawash – is located on the southern shores of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. Their traditional territory encompasses all of the Bruce Peninsula, southwest to Goderich and east to Orangeville.

Since its inception, nuclear power has played an increasingly dominant role in Ontario’s energy mix. Today, Bruce Power (formerly Douglas Point) is the world’s largest nuclear operator, supplying 30 per cent of Ontario’s electricity and 50 per cent of its nuclear energy.

Currently, three additional large-scale nuclear projects are currently being proposed for the Saugeen Ojibway territory, including two deep geological repositories to bury nuclear waste and a $20-billion refurbishment of six reactors at Bruce Power, extending the facility’s operating life through to 2064.

As these projects move forward, however, they face a different climate than in 1967.

In 2004, successive Supreme Court of Canada legal challenges led to landmark changes in Canada’s responsibilities around the duty to consult on matters affecting Aboriginal or Treaty Rights.

In 2015, Canada adopted the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes the principle of free, prior and informed consent, a principle that gives Indigenous peoples the right to give or withhold consent on all matters affecting their territories.

“That principle is seen as a mechanism though which Indigenous peoples can resist, participate in and benefit from development in their territories,” said Vanloffeld, an Anishinaabe from Saugeen First Nation in Ontario.

“Unlike the duty to consult and accommodate, however, there is no legal or policy framework in Canada to guide how free, prior and informed consent is defined and operationalized. Until recently, no Indigenous communities secured agreements from proponents permitting them to exercise free, prior and informed consent on development projects that affect their lands and territory.”

Currently, only two First Nation communities in Canada have secured that right – the Chippewas of Saugeen and the Chippewas of Nawash – as the Saugeen Ojibway Nation has legally binding agreements from Ontario Power Generation and Nuclear Waste Management Organization, the provincial and federal agencies, respectively.

This unique agreement states selection of a location for those two deep geological repositories in the Saugeen Ojibway Nation territory cannot happen without the communities’ consent.

That moment will set an historic precedent, Vanloffeld said, to guide Indigenous Peoples in Canada and internationally in their negotiations on matters affecting their rights, lands and resources with governments and industry.

“To be at the table and decide whether or not a project goes ahead, whether or not it goes somewhere else, we’re the only community in Canada that, on such major development projects, that have achieved that milestone,” he said. “There are a lot of eyes on the community.”

Vanloffeld research, Free, Prior and Informed Consent and Development in Indigenous Territories: A case study on the Chippewas of Saugeen’s community consent process related to nuclear waste disposal, looks to speak with members of Saugeen Ojibway Nation to see how history has changed, how has nuclear waste impacted the territory and how they see it impacting their future. He wants to understand not only how Saugeen Ojibway Nation is defining and operationalizing the process, but how it is engaging in acts of environmental repossession and are exercising self-determination.

“Government and industry are watching to see how this is operationalized, which will help inform a framework moving forward,” said Vanloffeld, noting there will be no government interference in this matter, letting the two respective sides come to an agreement itself. A decision could come as early as the end of this year.

“I’m sure there is that hesitation. Why trust those organizations? It’s been a 50-plus year history of exclusion. What has changed? So there is an education component going on in the communities. We do have a say now. You might have some trepidation, but ultimately the choice is yours,” he said.

“We didn’t ask for this burden to be put on our shoulders; they came in. But now we are the ones working with them to actually address it. I will be able to take a retrospective look at how did they come to that decision and what where any concerns along the way.”

Vanloffeld looks forward to sharing his findings with other First Nations communities, along with various levels of government in Canada and internationally.

“What can we learn from this? This framework will be there and people can learn from that and adapt it, within their own communities, to suit their own ends and objectives.”