Cecilia Begg is the Head Councillor of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation. She is the lone female community leader in what has come to be known as the KI6, a group serving six months for contempt after blockading a mining company from its licensed operations on disputed land near their community. In her first interview since her incarceration, she spoke with The Lake of the Wood Enterprise’s Jon Thompson at the Kenora jail about the road that has led her to this point, the reasons she is fighting the development, and the path that she hopes will emerge from her imprisonment.
The land entitlement claim that KI filed back in 2000 had been licensed to junior mining company, Platinex. Did that claim have anything to do with the fact that the government licensed a mining operation on the traditional territory of your people?
We’re still trying to get the Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE). That was one of the things we asked for. A solution has to accommodate (the government) revoking the license to Platinex.
How do you feel it would affect your community if the Platinex mine were to go ahead?
From the way things are, it would be a drastic change for our community. It would endanger the animals, our tradition and the culture of our people.
On September 24th, 2007, Platinex company employees were met at the KI airport by members of the community. They then charged you and the others with contempt, which you did not defend in court. What really happened that day?
They came into town and they were going to set up an office in the community and then fly into the site. They were there to do what they called archeological studies. We had been saying no all along and they
They were met outside the plane and told they weren’t welcome in the community; that we were adamant about fighting for our land. They finally left later in the day. I left that morning for a meeting down south but I was in the party that blockaded their entry to our land.
You’re a mother, a grandmother, and a great grandmother. A lot of the mobilization around your political struggle has related to your being a woman. Can you explain the connection?
Three years ago, I decided that if it came to doing a jail sentence to defend our land, I would. I could have got out of it. When we were first sentenced, I met with (Nishinawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief) Stan Beardy and (Assembly of First Nations National Chief) Phil Fontaine. They were concerned that I was the only female serving a jail term and that maybe their lawyers could work towards an appeal process. But since I’m the only female, I felt the importance to go through with it and I wanted to stand by my original decision until such time as we get a positive answer to what we’re asking for.
In our culture, it’s important to show respect to the females. They are the ones who are mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers, elders. You go on with things in that process. We’re doing this on behalf of the ladies back home. They play an important role.
The women of Nishinawbe Aski Nation’s Women’s Council are fasting today to raise attention to your story. They’re saying that in jailing you and the other imprisoned leaders, the Ontario government is creating heroes. How do you feel about that?
I don’t know. My being in jail fighting for what I believe is ours…our rights, our land, for future generations. It’s not about me, it’s about the people back home. I appreciate their support…and the support from all over.
I want people back home to know that I’m doing all right. I have the support and prayers of many. In our culture it’s encouraged to put the creator ahead of everything. That’s what I believe in.
Did you see the demonstration marching by the jail last Saturday for you?
The glass is real thick upstairs so we couldn’t get a clear view but we could hear the drumming and we could see the colours and that there were many people. That meant a lot to me, especially seeing so many people from back home who were able to join the rally.
One of the concerns from John Cutfeet (who negotiated on behalf of KI) was that the 2006 court ruling required the government to consult First Nations before companies could begin operations. In his words to me last summer, “First Nations gained the right to sit at the table,but they don’t have the right to leave the table”. To him, that wasn’t legitimate consultation. What needs to be included in the consultation process that is not included now?
To go back to square one and ensure the proper steps are taken this time. There has to be changes. We have to be properly notified, if there are even surveys going on. That has to happen before anything happens.The camps up North, there are signs of the land being staked. Land is being surveyed over the summer and winter with no consultation. Our treaty rights have to be respected.
In an interview with Aboriginal People’s Television News, new provincial Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant said the government is working to overturn the decision that put you in prison, and that the crown had never asked for imprisonment. What does that support mean to you and what do you think is going to happen?
I’m not sure. I’ve been talking with people from back home and what the minister is passing on is not entirely true. They say he lied about the number of times he has been there. Once, he made a press release prior to coming to our community saying that we’re coming to some sort of an agreement. We hadn’t reached any sort of agreement with him. That didn’t sit well with us.
What’s do you think is going to happen at the end of your sentence?
I’m just taking it a day at a time, trying to get as much information as I can from back home. It’s a long process, trying to get information. I haven’t been able to speak with the other men (imprisoned in Thunder Bay) until today. We’re encouraging each other by knowing we’re doing fine. That’s all we can do.
Is there any chance that there could be any sort of agreement with the company?
At the moment, the answer is still no. We haven’t changed. It will be up to the future generations and future leaders to allow or not allow development. We’re not for or against development but there’s too much at stake and we have to get our community ready for that. It will be up to the future generation and we can’t foresee what they will need. We’re keeping the land for them.