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Treaties and Land Claims

The Crown promised riches to First Nations in Canada – over 150 years on, they could finally get billions

December 15, 2023

In northern Ontario, a dozen First Nations have been left struggling. A court’s attempt at compensation could see them getting up to C$126bn

The Red Rock Indian Band is located 100km east of Thunder Bay Ontario. A court’s attempt to compensate the First Nations for unpaid rent could have far-reaching implications, both for the affected communities and the country. Photograph David Jackson/The Guardian

Only 25 miles of road lie between the northern Ontario town of Terrace Bay and Pays Plat First Nation. But when Raymond Goodchild was growing up, that distance spanned entire worlds.

Terrace Bay in the 1960s was often smothered by a thick smoke billowing from pulp mills. As in much of postwar Canada, industry thrived and jobs were plentiful. Roads and sidewalks were paved, and homes glowed at night with electric lighting.

Raymond Goodchild of the Pays Plat First Nation visits the community cemetery where his parents, Violet and George, are buried.
Raymond Goodchild of the Pays Plat First Nation visits the community cemetery where his parents, Violet and George, are buried. Photograph: David Jackson/The Guardian

Goodchild’s home in Pays Plat, meanwhile, was a tar-paper shack without electricity or running water, which would whistle with cold drafts at night. The division of the world seemed clear – and Goodchild and other Indigenous people were on the wrong side. He was taunted at school. He survived bitter winters with only a thin denim jacket. He often picked through the local garbage dump for anything useful. It took two decades before he had a home with running water. He had to enlist in the Canadian military before he ever experienced the feeling of bedsheets.

“When I had my daughter, I said a prayer: ‘Let me give her a better life.’”

mill spewing smoke into the air
The Terrace Bay Mill is owned by Aditya Birla Group, and is located in Terrace Bay, Ontario.Photograph: David Jackson/The Guardian

More than 170 years after a treaty with the Crown promised Goodchild’s ancestors a share of the region’s riches, his people have instead been left struggling with illness, poverty and housing shortages – an enduring legacy of the colonial project first envisioned by the British government and continued after Canada gained independence.

A dozen First Nations in northern Ontario have been denied a quality of life enjoyed by a broader society, even when those riches were contractually owed to them by the Crown. Now, with the possibility of Canada’s largest-ever litigation award on the horizon, a court’s attempt to compensate the nations for unpaid rent could have far-reaching consequences, both for the affected communities and the country.

Goodchild, now 67 and a respected elder in his community, says some things have improved: running water and electricity are now common. But despite years of promises, poverty has persisted in Pays Plat, exacerbated by drug abuse and mental illness.

“They talk about truth and reconciliation. I’m still waiting,” said the former chief and decorated military veteran. “I’m going to be patient.”

a cross marking a grave
The graves of Goodchild’s parents, Violet and George, lie a few dozen feet from the banks of the Pays Plat River. Photograph: David Jackson/The Guardian

The graves of Goodchild’s mother and father, are marked by lichen-covered wood crosses, and lie a few dozen feet from the banks of the Pays Plat River, which cuts through the community and opens into Lake Superior. He passes by almost every day.

“My ancestors are still with me, the people buried here, the spirits – they’re all watching me and seeing what I’m trying to do in this world: the good.”

Sand dunes at the mouth of the Pic River, Ontario, along the shore of Lake Superior.
Sand dunes at the mouth of the Pic River, Ontario, along the shore of Lake Superior. Photograph: David Jackson/The Guardian

For generations, knowledge of these lands and waters has been critical for the inhabitants of a region that can be both a place of bounty and bitter inhospitability. The Anishinaabe used a 13-moon cycle to determine the harvest. In the waning days of summer, during the moon of the falling leaves, fiddleheads and sweetflag were abundant. Three moons later, the caribou were harvested for their meat. Such knowledge was a necessary part of mino-bimaadiziwin, the Anishinaabe concept of living a good life.

And for too long, say community leaders, a broken promise meant generations have been robbed of the opportunity to realize mino-bimaadiziwin.

In 1850, a collection of Anishinaabe nations on the shores of Lakes Huron and Superior signed a treaty with the British Crown spanning 35,700 sq miles of land. Known as the Robinson Treaties for the fur trader William Robinson, who negotiated on behalf of the Crown, the agreements acknowledged Indigenous communities’ rights to hunt and fish.

The gas station in Pays Play First Nation along Highway 17.
The gas station in Pays Play First Nation along Highway 17.Photograph: David Jackson/The Guardian

Robinson knew the Crown had little money to expand into the region – and so he made a novel offer. He included an “augmentation clause” that would increase annual payments “from time to time” as the land generated more wealth – “if and when” that payment could be made without the Crown incurring a loss.

Over the following 173 years, the lands and waters covered by the deal generated immense profits for companies – and substantial revenues for the province of Ontario. But the annuities were capped in 1874 at $4 a person, and never increased.

Industry and towns in the region thrived, but First Nations communities were left in squalor, subject to restrictive laws, including the prohibition of hiring a lawyer or leaving a reserve without permission from a government official.

In 1998, chiefs whose communities were part of the Robinson-Superior treaty sued the Crown, arguing it had broken its promise to share the wealth of the lands. The case inched slowly through the courts, and two decades later, a judge agreed with them.

In a 2018 ruling, the Ontario superior court justice Patricia Hennessy found the “honour of the Crown” had been “seriously undermined” after successive governments broke their word.

Hennessy made efforts to understand the Anishinaabe perspective, participating with her legal teams in sweat lodge ceremonies, pipe ceremonies, sacred fire teachings, smudge ceremonies and eagle staff and eagle feather presentations.

Her decision ran counter to popular narratives that Indigenous peoples were swindled by predatory deals or naively traded away their lands. The Anishinaabe “fully understood” they were signing over their lands to the Crown to develop and settle, she wrote. “They were giving the greatest gift of all – ‘the land and water over which countless generations of their ancestors had presided … the source of bimaadiziwin, which is to say, life in the fullest sense of the term,’” wrote Hennessy.

And they did so believing the agreement would be honoured.

Now, the 12 nations in the Robinson Superior treaty argue they are owed substantial compensation. According to the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, the figure could approach C$126bn.

“If you’ve owed somebody something, year after year after year, for 170 years, it’s a lot of money,” he told the court while testifying for the First Nations in February.

But Ontario has resisted such claims, arguing that far from growing rich, it has spent nearly C$4.2bn in its efforts to settle the north and open it up to industry.

For the nations on the shores of Lake Superior, the decades-long legal battle remains a stark symbol of broken promises.

“How many people might not have needlessly passed away if they had proper healthcare? If they had proper homes to live in, clean water, access to medicines?” said Marcus Hardy, chief of the Red Rock First Nation. “It’s not just about the annuity. It’s about the erosion of our rights, the erosion of our people’s ability to live their lives.”

Half of the Lesperance family’s young bull moose is carted into the community butcher shop, known as Maamawitaawining, Ojibway for At The Gathering Place, on the Red Rock Indian Band.
Half of the Lesperance family’s young bull moose is carted into the community butcher shop, known as Maamawitaawining, Ojibway for At The Gathering Place, on the Red Rock Indian Band. Photograph: David Jackson/The Guardian
The Lesperance family butcher their family’s young bull moose in front of the community butcher shop.
The Lesperance family butcher their family’s young bull moose in front of the community butcher shop. Photograph: David Jackson/The Guardian

At the reserve’s newly built community butcher shop, a bull moose hangs from a steel rack. The hunter and his family will soon neatly dismantle and parcel off the hundreds of pounds of meat.

Built to address a food sovereignty crisis, the shop blends traditional knowledge and modern amenities. During the fall harvest, younger hunters donate moose meat to elders and the community runs a food drive for residents struggling to buy groceries.

Chief Marcus Hardy of the Red Rock Indian Band.
Chief Marcus Hardy of the Red Rock Indian Band. Photograph: David Jackson/The Guardian

Incomes on reserve are far lower than in other parts of the country, and child poverty rates remain persistently high. Indigenous children on reserve receive less funding for education than those in nearby towns and between 2011 and 2016, Canada’s auditor general found only 24% students completed high school within four years. Basic health services, including doctors and dentists, are often unavailable.

Canada’s federal government admits that colonial efforts to forcefully assimilate Indigenous peoples, and the displacement of First Nations on to inhospitable reserves have all contributed to shorter life expectancy, poverty and illness.

Driving through the Red Rock reserve, a community encircled by forests of fir, spruce and birch, Hardy says the long reach of Canada’s “deeply racist” policies under the Indian Act are inescapable in daily life.

Hardy, a veteran of the Canadian army who served two tours of Afghanistan, says it was still a challenge to reconcile his service to the country with the Crown’s treatment of his people.

During the first world war, Canada expropriated hundreds of thousands of acres of reserve lands. In some cases, the government gave the land to non-Indigenous veterans as part of a farmland grant program that excluded Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous veterans often faced legalized discrimination, including a provision in the act that said any “Indian” who was absent from the reserve for four consecutive years would lose their status – meaning that many Indigenous veterans returned to learn that they had been disenfranchised by the federal government. Because the Indian Act barred Indigenous men from drinking, some gave up their Indian status to visit a Royal Canadian Legion bar.

“After serving. Just to go have a couple of drinks,” said Hardy. “It’s insane the atrocities they went through. It was a complete human rights violation. And it lasted for years.”

While those rules have changed, even today, the Indian Act amplifies inequalities. All reserve land is held by the Crown, so reserve residents don’t own the land under their homes and can’t use it for collateral to start businesses or take out loans.

a woman standing in a room
Juanita Starr is a band councillor with the Pic River First Nation. Photograph: David Jackson/The Guardian

In the community of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, 130 miles east from Pays Plat through a corridor of basalt cliffs and golden tamarack trees, Juanita Starr says the prospect of a hefty settlement is a jarring reminder how different the lives of previous generations could have been.

Her grandfather had the mind of an entrepreneur, but a lack of resources in his community meant that few of his ambitious dreams, including a solar farm, were ever realized. “I think a lot about how this would have impacted me had we been given this amount of money over the years,” said Starr, who works as the community’s sustainable development director.

And as her two young children grow, the promise of a substantial payout has shifted how she thinks about the next generations. “How do we manage it for their futures to make sure they’re set up, like if my son wants to go to Harvard Law School or Trinity College?” she pondered.

After hearing testimony from chiefs and elders like Raymond Goodchild, Justice Hennesy is now tasked with determining what might be considered fair compensation for the nations. The province of Ontario has recently argued such a complicated task should not be left up to the courts, a line of argument rejected by the First Nations.

“Where do First Nations turn if they aren’t being treated fairly by government? They have to have recourse to the courts,” said Brian Gover, a lawyer who represents seven of the nations. “It may be said that the courts aren’t ideally suited to determine issues of compensation, particularly in the realm of treaty rights. But we turn to our court system every day for complex damages calculations, so that people can gain redress for wrongs perpetrated against them. And it rings hollow that Indigenous people are instead told to turn to [other] processes that have been shown to have failed.”

For community leaders the case is a question of basic justice.

Wilfred King, chief of Gulf Bay.
Wilfred King, chief of Gulf Bay. Photograph: Leyland Cecco

“We were put in abject poverty. And now we’re coming to a possible resolution where our people will no longer live in squalor. They’ll be able to reach their full potential as First Nations people on the territory that was rightfully ours,” says Wilfred King, chief of Gull Bay. “Is that justice? I don’t know. But it’s a recognition of racist ideals like ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and the development of a whole legal system that justified the taking away of Aboriginal lands.”

King sees the prospect of a significant settlement as a chance to address the community’s most pressing needs: building housing, medical and mental health facilities. Gull Bay, which sits on the rocky shores of Lake Nipigon 120 miles north of Thunder Bay, needs new water and sewer lines, but also asphalt roads and the possibility of sidewalks. King has cautiously started imagining full-time dentists and doctors within the community. Maybe even a co-op grocery store.

A shed sits beside a new housing project on the Pic River First Nation, Ontario.
A shed sits beside a new housing project on the Pic River First Nation, Ontario. Photograph: David Jackson/The Guardian

“We’re on the cusp of great things and with the settlement of these claims, and with the assertion of our rights, development is not going to occur unless you have First Nations that are partnering with those industries,” said King. “When we succeed, everybody succeeds.”

Click on the following link to read the original article in The Guardian:

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