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Behind First Nations’ demands for climate tax exemptions

Diesel can run as high as $4 a litre, while gas is as high as $3 a litre, chiefs in northern Ontario told Canada’s National Observer.

And yet, many First Nations in Ontario, especially in northern remote communities, rely on diesel to power critical infrastructure in their communities.

It’s why the Chiefs of Ontario, a regional organization representing 133 chiefs in the province, filed a legal challenge to Ottawa’s carbon tax last week.

The judicial review comes after a couple of years of negotiating with the federal government on what a carbon pricing regime could look like for First Nations in Ontario, Abram Benedict, chief of Akwesasne and head of the environmental file for the Chiefs of Ontario, told Canada’s National Observer.

The carbon tax has put extra financial pressure on First Nations communities in the province, Benedict said.

The Chiefs of Ontario supports climate action and other strategies to lower emissions, but the purpose of the challenge is because "the federal government has not responded with something that adequately responds to [the] realities of communities,” Benedict said.

Benedict also says the carbon price is discriminatory, partly because its rebate mechanism is tied to the federal income tax system, which many who live and work on reserves do not fall under.

The legal challenge comes after Ottawa’s exemption on home heating oil, a move many on the Hill see as a concession to the Liberals’ Atlantic caucus. Oil is the dominant fuel in the Atlantic provinces.

Nationally, other chiefs have supported an exemption to the carbon tax, including incoming Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse, who said she “absolutely” supports the Ontario chiefs.

In April at a special Chiefs Assembly, a resolution was passed calling for an exemption to the federal carbon tax for rural and remote communities.

Scott Harper, grand chief of Anisininew Okimawin, which represents four First Nations in northern Manitoba, told Canada’s National Observer that he supports anything to lower the price of fuel. In the First Nations he represents, diesel and gas are essential for key services like school buses and even plumbing, he said.

In the House of Commons last week, the Conservatives attacked the Liberals on the carbon tax following the launch of the judicial review.

When asked about the Conservatives attacking the carbon tax, Benedict said he thinks the Opposition sees the Liberals unfairly applying exemptions in the country, pointing to the oil concession for the Atlantic caucus.

“We would rather not get into the party [partisanship] around this,” he said.

“It really is the right thing to do: acknowledge communities are severely disadvantaged prior to this, acknowledge that the relationship is an important relationship, and come to the table to work on a solution [so] that our communities are not financially disadvantaged by [the carbon tax].”

— With files from Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer