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Algonquin members organize in fight for identity, land and nationhood

August 21, 2023

‘We’re all starting to feel considerably more threats,’ says professor Veldon Coburn

A huge projector screen with a man and a microphone speaking in front of it.
Kebaowek First Nation Chief Lance Haymond speaks at the Ottawa Art Gallery on Aug. 16, 2023.  (Brett Forester/CBC)

CBC News: It’s almost like a game of colonial whack-a-mole. Everywhere Algonquin Nation members look these days, it seems a new problem pops up.

If it isn’t declining moose stocks, it’s a proposed radioactive dump on unceded land, and if it isn’t a controversial Ontario land claim or friction with the Métis Nation of Ontario, it’s the rise of the self-declared eastern Métis in Quebec. 

With limited time and money — and a traditional territory larger than some provinces  — the Algonquin Anishinaabeg face hard decisions about the top issue to target, but according to a group that gathered last week in Ottawa, that issue should be unity.

“That needs to happen first in order for us to address all those other problems,” said Kyle Brennan Shàwinipinesì, co-organizer of the two-day forum on Algonquin identity and nation building. “We’ve allowed this sort of chasm and colonial interference to really drive us apart.”

He and two other members of Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg in western Quebec hosted the meeting last week at the Ottawa Art Gallery for grassroots people to organize.

A man poses for a picture outside the Ottawa Art Gallery.
Kyle Brennan Shàwinipinesì co-organized the event in Ottawa along with two other members of Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg in western Quebec. (Brett Forester/CBC)

The meeting was sparked in part by concerns with “self-Indigenization,” he explained, where Canadians reach back generations to find a distant Indigenous ancestor, then claim the modern identity to score cash grants and other benefits.

“The incursion of self-Indigenization has such a big impact,” he said.

The Algonquin Nation has 17,000 status members spread across 11 bands through Ontario and Quebec, situated throughout the Ottawa River watershed, and thousands more claiming Algonquin ancestry.

Kitigan Zibi, about 150 km north of Ottawa, is on the frontline of the Indigenous identity wars — even intervening in a recent court case that ruled against the existence of a Métis community in nearby Maniwaki, Que., — but it’s not alone feeling the heat. 

The Algonquins of Pikwakanagan is the only Indian Act band that belongs to the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO) umbrella group, which also includes nine more non-status communities.

Land claims and court cases

The AOO is on the cusp of a modern treaty. If finalized, it would settle an Algonquin claim to nine million acres of land in Ontario. The group would get 117,500 acres, a $300-million payout and recognition of certain ongoing rights.

But the AOO had identity troubles, culminating in a June 2023 AOO tribunal hearing where a controversial 19th-century Algonquin ancestor was found to be French and turfed. 

That means potentially hundreds of non-Algonquin descendants could influence the treaty’s 2016 agreement-in-principle, which Pikwakanagan members voted against. Meanwhile, Algonquins in Quebec widely reject the AOO, the treaty and the provincial boundary that divides them.

A map of Algonquin territory along the Ottawa River in eastern Ontario.
A 2020 map showing the Algonquins of Ontario land claim area, with plots to be turned over to the Algonquins, subject to Crown jurisdiction, in red. (Algonquins of Ontario)

“Title is vested in the nation, and 80 per cent of our population lives on the east side of the Kichi Sibi,” said Veldon Coburn, a Pikwakanagan member and associate professor at McGill University, using the Ottawa River’s Algonquin name.

Coburn presented to the group on “court cases, legal threats to Algonquin identity and the AOO,” alongside University of Ottawa professors Amir Attaran and Darryl Leroux. Leroux’s research tracks the rise of “race-shifting” groups that advance dubious or bogus claims.

“We’re all starting to feel considerably more threats,”  said Coburn, speaking with CBC News afterward. “We’re feeling it all across the Algonquin Nation.”

Referencing Leroux’s work, Coburn described these groups as charlatans who charge membership fees, wage aggressive legal battles and give themselves phony honorifics like “the grand chief of Bob’s Algonquin club.” They work the backrooms of municipal politics, academia or the arts, and can fool authorities who haven’t done their homework, said Coburn.

Then there’s the friction with the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO), which roots its claims in the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2003 Powley decision, recognizing Métis harvesting rights in and around Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

The Algonquins are suing the Ontario government for an alleged failure to consult them when it extended Métis harvesting rights further east to Algonquin territory in 2017. Just a day after the conference wrapped, the province’s appeals court greenlit the case.

Meanwhile, outside the art gallery, Coburn motioned to Wolf Lake Chief Lisa Robinson, who was seated beside him, to drive home the point. She leads a reserveless band in Quebec.

It’s all “very frustrating” to watch, said Robinson, also grand chief of the Algonquin Nation Secretariat, as her community continues its 140-year fight for land and recognition. “I’m sure I can probably have more choice words, but it’s not right.”

Then, on top of the identity issues and court cases, there’s land and the environment.

Nuclear waste woes

If you told Chief Lance Haymond five years ago he would become the poster boy for the anti-nuclear movement, he would’ve called you crazy.  But there stood the long-serving head of Kebaowek First Nation, inside the art gallery, briefing his people on why he feels Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ plan to bury nuclear waste 1.1 km from the Ottawa River is a bad one.

“Nuclear pollution is happening. It is happening on our territory. It is threatening our land. It is threatening our waters,” he told the group. “It is threatening our very ability to continue to exercise our rights.”

A man poses for a photo outside the Ottawa Art Gallery.
Chief Lance Haymond, pictured in Ottawa on Aug. 16, 2023, says the vast majority of the Algonquin Nations will not consent to the building of a nuclear waste dump on their traditional territory. (Brett Forester/CBC)

The company seeks a licence amendment to build what it dubs a “near-surface disposal facility,” or NSDF, at the old lab at Chalk River, Ont., roughly 180 km upstream from Ottawa. In regular language, it’s a dump with special features for nuclear waste.

The project would blast a landfill into the Canadian shield to bury a million cubic metres of radioactive trash. The company says the project is safe and contains advanced engineering to protect the river. In regulatory submissions, the company argued the Crown’s duty to consult is complete and that, in any case, Indigenous consent isn’t legally required.

But Haymond disputes the company’s environmental assessments and warns a full-court press to oppose the dump is coming. Pikwakanagan is the only band that has consented, and “no consent will be provided by the vast majority of the Algonquin Nation,” Haymond said. 

The Algonquins are taking a nation-based approach, much as they did in the 2020 moratorium on moose hunting, to guard their territory for future generations, he added in an interview with CBC News. “I want them to be able to eat the moose that comes off the land — if there’s still any left.”


Brett Forester, Reporter

Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.