Wahta Mohawks Chief Philip Franks and supporters made good on their plan to stage a ‘Portage-In’ protest this morning at Bala Falls. They were protesting what they say has been a lack of consultation with them on the part of the government over the Bala Portage which people are currently banned from using. Today the chief and others from the Wahta Mohawk First Nation used the portage to make a statement to help publicize the requests they made yesterday to different government ministries on what they’re calling a ‘failure to consult’
“We’re prepared to sit down and spend time (in discussions with the government),” Franks told the crowd of about 100 people who came out today to watch the protest. Supporters of the portage peacefully held up traffic near the site for about 10-12 minutes carrying signs, with some stating ‘Idle No More.’
“Wahta Mohawks came here from our homeland in 1881,” said Franks of the historic portage. “We have an inherent interest in things that affect lands not only in our territories, but in surrounding areas.” Franks says the Wahta Mohawks respect heritage sites and that they have a long history in the area. “This is one piece of it,” he said.
Muskoka Lakes Mayor Alice Murphy told the Moose she respects the concerns of the Wahta Mohawks, namely on the duty to consult issue. “Certainly members of our community have expressed those concerns over the last 6-8 years,” she said. “We look forward to the government, the Crown, to address the concerns that have been raised.”
Bala Falls is the site where a controversial new hydro plant could be built by Swift River Energy Ltd. Swift River’s Bala Falls project manager Karen McGhee says the company commissioned both historians and paddling experts to study the project site and that they determined the Crown lands that the project will be located on is not the site of the historical portage and that the historic portages were located on adjacent land now owned by the municipality and on the north side of the falls i.e. Portage Street. She added that the MNR has closed down the Crown lands that the project will be located on citing public safety concerns and that this closure has nothing to do with the hydro station. She said the MNR’s decision to close it for safety reasons was upheld by two Ontario Courts (Divisional and Court of Appeals in 2013 and 2014) and that two adult men drowned at the location in 2009.
McGhee adds there are still several safe and easy-to-use portage paths in Bala to traverse between the Moon River and Lake Muskoka. “Swift River takes aboriginal consultation seriously,” she stated in an email. “We were surprised to hear of Wahta’s concerns yesterday as we consulted with them several times since starting the project in 2005. We have reached out to Chief Franks both yesterday and today to discuss his people’s concerns. We are awaiting a response.” McGhee says Swift River supports recreational boating and paddling. “We encourage paddlers to use the alternate portage routes as identified on our website.”
(PHOTO: Chief Franks holds a yoke that was presented to him by the Bala Museum at today’s protest. It had been owned at one point by a settler who had helped the Wahta Mohawks after they’d landed at the site back in 1881. The First Nation had made the settler an honorary chief and had given him a symbolic paddle and yoke – today both items were returned to them. Photo by Matthew Sitler)
To see an aerial view of the Wahta Mohawks canoeists landing on shore at today’s protest watch the clip below. (Drone Footage Courtesy of John Wright)