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Algonquins of Ontario organization removes nearly 2,000 members after ancestry disputes

February 28, 2024

AOO ‘reorganization is possible’ but not confirmed, Pikwakanagan chief says

A welcome sign on the side of the road on a sunny day.
A bilingual sign welcomes visitors to Pikwàkanagàn, an Algonquin community roughly 140 kilometres west of downtown Ottawa, on July 12, 2023. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

CBC Indigenous: The Algonquins of Ontario (AOO) has removed nearly 2,000 people from its certified electorate after an internal tribunal ruled against their asserted Algonquin ancestry last year.

This follows years of controversy and internal protests, which flared in 2021 after CBC News reported a suspicious letter — on which several hundred people relied to claim Algonquin rights — was likely fake.

The AOO comprises 10 communities, only one of which —  Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, roughly 150 kilometres west of Ottawa — is federally recognized.

The Algonquins of Pikwakanagan had disputed the alleged Indigeneity of 19th-century voyageur Thomas Lagarde dit St. Jean and his wife Sophie Carriere three times previously.

Pikwakanagan members succeeded on the fourth try last spring, when the AOO tribunal rejected the letter, ousting Lagarde and Carriere from the AOO’s ancestors list, plus five others.

AOO uses “root ancestors,” historic Algonquins with a documented link to living descendants, to help determine beneficiaries of a pending modern treaty. But for years, allegations of ethnic fraud and loose vetting overshadowed what would be a first-of-its-kind deal in Ontario.

“Certainly, Pikwakanagan has long suspected that the list was not accurate, and did not have the integrity necessary to bring us to a final treaty,” said Pikwakanagan Chief Greg Sarazin.

A First Nations chief poses for a photo.
Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation Chief Greg Sarazin in December 2023. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

The removals ousted 1,937 AOO electors out of 8,528, according to a Sept. 19, 2023 final statistical reassessment, provided to CBC News with an October 2023 list of removed individuals.

Meanwhile, some question the democratic integrity of an agreement-in-principle AOO ratified in 2016, which members in Pikwakanagan widely rejected.

The agreement promises AOO 47,550 hectares of land, a $300-million payout and recognition of ongoing land and resource rights, settling a claim to 36,000 square kilometres in eastern Ontario.

“I think I’m not alone in believing that the last 15 to 20 years of these negotiations are entirely illegitimate,” said Veldon Coburn, an associate professor at McGill University and a Pikwakanagan member.

“We’re going to have to go back to the drawing board, like right to square one. There’s nothing here, because those that were sitting in the driver’s seat for the negotiations weren’t Algonquin.”

The Algonquin Nation has roughly 17,000 status members from 11 federally recognized bands in western Quebec and eastern Ontario, with several thousand more claiming Algonquin ancestry.

The provincial border divides Algonquin territory, which was never surrendered or ceded to the Crown. Algonquin leaders on the Quebec side previously rejected the AOO deal.

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 in fee simple title, subject to Crown jurisdiction, in red. (Algonquins of Ontario)

Chief Lisa Robinson, of Wolf Lake First Nation in Quebec, said it’s fundamentally wrong for the group to negotiate rights that belong to the entire nation, regardless of the colonially imposed border. 

“We have been people of the Kichi Sipi (Ottawa River), and that includes both sides of the river, the west side and the east side,” said Robinson, who is also grand chief of the Algonquin Nation Secretariat.

In 2015, the secretariat analyzed AOO’s voters list and concluded 39 per cent were non-Algonquin. The recent removals represent roughly 23 per cent, so Robinson believes there is still work to do. Ultimately she blames the Crown.

“At the end of the day, to create this group of people and to give them rights, even before having a fully negotiated claim, is really problematic,” she said.

‘Manufactured consent’

Lynn Gehl is Algonquin but was denied Indian status for more than 30 years due to sex discrimination in the Indian Act rules, until Ontario’s top court declared she should have status in 2013. 

Now a Pikwakanagan member, Gehl said the identity issue is important but distracts from what she sees as the bigger issue — that the offer is bad.

“It’s 1.7 per cent of our land, a one-time buyout and there’s no resource revenue sharing,” said Gehl.

A headshot of Lynn Gehl.
Lynn Gehl was previously a member of the Algonquins of Ontario’s Greater Golden Lake community, until obtaining her Indian status. (Samantha Moss)

In her view, the treaty process is not a negotiation because the Crown came to the table with rigid mandates and inordinate power to dictate terms.

“This is manufactured consent. This is genocide,” she said.

“And if Canada and Ontario want to walk around and talk about reconciliation and ‘nation to nation,’ they have to give us a cut of our resources, so that we can sit at that table with some leverage. It’s really not rocket science.”

Sarazin is alert to the concerns.

He suggested the agreement-in-principle doesn’t need to be cancelled because it’s legally non-binding. He is focused, he said, on shoring up the integrity of the Algonquin registry while concluding a final treaty Pikwakanagan members find acceptable.

‘Oversized, expensive, unresponsive’

The Trudeau government seems intent on letting treaty talks continue.

“Although good progress has been made in these discussions, more work remains to be done before a treaty can be concluded,” wrote Matthieu Perrotin, spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree, in a statement.

As with any treaty, Indigenous people enrolled as potential beneficiaries must vote to approve it, wrote Perrotin, who described eligibility and enrolment as internal Algonquin matters.

On that front, Coburn said there is community chatter about reconstituting a new Algonquin body.

“I believe there’s a very good chance that the AOO will collapse and had it be my way, that’s the preferred outcome, too,” he said.

CBC News obtained a Dec. 21, 2023 slide deck prepared for constituents of Kijicho Manito Madaouskarini, a non-status AOO community in the Bancroft area, about 220 kilometres west of Ottawa.

The presentation said a majority of Algonquin negotiators recently came to see AOO as “an oversized, expensive, unresponsive organization incapable of reaching a treaty settlement” and that a new Algonquin treaty alliance may be formed. 

Sarazin said restructuring is possible.

“Treaty negotiation structures are always being reviewed to ensure that the Algonquins in Ontario are best represented,” he said.

“While a reorganization is possible, nothing has yet been decided.”

Robert Potts, the AOO’s lawyer and negotiator, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Ontario’s Ministry of Indigenous Affairs also didn’t respond.


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.