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Settlers and Natives, United Against the Government

The Globe and Mail: ROY MacGREGOR - December 3, 2007

Let us head down Snow Road on this morning when the plowed banks are higher than they have been any Dec. 3 for some time.

Let us visit on a bitter weekend when Environment Canada has predicted the coldest winter in 15 years.

And here let us talk about global warming - and the hints of heat to come in at least the next 15 years.

Snow Road is not far from the Sharbot Lake standoff between the Ardoch and Obaadjiwan Algonquin First Nations - joined by an increasing number of white neighbours - and Frontenac Ventures Corp. over uranium exploration in Eastern Ontario.

It is also the way to reach John and Sheila Kittle, a conservative, middle-age retired couple - he a math and physics graduate who worked in computers, she a registered nurse - who say they have never before considered themselves "activist" but who today are key members of a grassroots rebellion.

"We believe," says John Kittle, "that we are making Canadian history."

What they and hundreds of other white neighbours are doing is standing with the aboriginals who first set up a blockade back in June.

Together, they are up against big business, legislation, the courts, a provincial government and, to some extent, a widespread impatience with native blockades that, in the case of Sharbot Lake, has also set whites against whites.

It was a white, actually, who first sounded the alarm here. Frank Morrison, who owns a large tract of mSettlers and natives, united against the government management forest, found disturbing signs of prospecting activity - including provincial-issued tags - on what he thought was protected land. When Morrison complained, he discovered he had no say in the matter. Ontario legislation more than a century old gave mining operations free entry onto his land to explore, with the landowner having no claim whatsoever on the mineral rights that lie below the surface.

The Algonquins also discovered similar activity on territory for which they had a massive land claim - land that stretched all the way from Sharbot Lake to Parliament Hill and beyond.

The aboriginal groups moved quickly to protest, the non-natives less quickly. The whites toyed with calling themselves some variation of "Frontenac Uranium Committee" but abandoned this when a member suggested the acronym might prove embarrassing. Instead, they began calling themselves the "Mississippi Watershed Settlers" and now claim to number around a thousand.

Settlers and natives against the government.

The potential area for exploration, they discovered, covered a vast watershed that included the nearby Mississippi, Madawaska, Ottawa and Gatineau rivers - essentially the Algonquin land claim - as well as the entire Rideau River/Canal system that was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

John Kittle was worried about more than what some other locals accused him of - a predictable not-in-my-backyard reaction to needed development - in that he had once worked in a laboratory investigating the mysterious properties of uranium. It bothered him that the legislation that permits such exploration predated any real understanding of uranium's potential powers and health threats.

Frontenac Ventures was well within its rights to explore, according to the law of the land. After the blockade went up, the prospector turned to the courts to gain an order that would put an end to the blockade. The provincial police, however, perhaps unwilling to tempt another standoff incident, chose to use discretion and not fully execute the order. Lawsuits flew back and forth, a Mohawk Warrior flag continued to fly at the site, one of the settlers went on a dramatic hunger strike, and everything more or less ground to today's standstill.

The desire to find uranium is obvious in that its price at times makes oil look a slacker. The natives, however, say mining companies have no rights on a land claim that has yet to be settled. And the settlers say there is simply no need for more Canadian uranium, given the mines in northern Saskatchewan and current stockpiles.

They also warn about threats to health, saying mining will produce tailings, cause the release of radon gas - identified by Health Canada as the No. 1 cause of lung cancer after smoking - and possibly endanger area water tables.

The curious thing is that John Kittle, the reluctant activist, isn't even a fanatical opponent of nuclear energy, which so many in the global warming debate see as the best possible solution when it comes to eliminating the burning of fossil fuels for energy needs.

"I'm a 50-per-cent supporter," he says. He considers nuclear energy "dirty from end to end," from mining to disposal, but he also knows it might be a necessary evil if society is going to be able to move from traditional sources to cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar power.

"The thing is," he says, "no matter what your views, you don't have to mine this uranium."

Increasingly, he is finding agreement among area municipal councils, including the City of Kingston. This week, his group will launch its own legal action against the province of Ontario.

It is all enough to make you think that, despite Environment Canada's frigid predictions, things are only starting to heat up.

(Refresher on the Sharbot Lake mine issue)

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