Bill for 145 years of thievery is due
A flurry of “good news” announcements has recently come from the Ford government on Indigenous issues, from a $27.5-million investment in Indigenous businesses to a helpful intervention in settling an important transmission line issue in the North.
But do those announcements serve as a smokescreen to cover up what is actually going on behind the scenes in provincial-Indigenous relations?
Two weeks ago, Ontario indicated it would be appealing a court decision that would result in a substantial settlement to First Nations people who’ve essentially been ripped off since 1874.
In late January, Ontario announced it intends to appeal the Robinson-Huron Treaty court decision that says the Crown must adjust annuity payments to those governed by the terms of the Treaty, from $4 a year — a payment that has not increased in 145 years — to modern rates.
The 21 First Nations, from Lake Huron to the Quebec border, who signed the Robinson-Huron Treaty have received their annual $4 payment, despite a provision that says the annuity would increase as wealth is generated from the rich resources on the land. The court’s ruling also effects the Robinson-Superior Treaty area, where 57,000 square kilometres along the shores of Lake Superior was taken by the Crown.
Both treaties were signed within days of each other in early September 1850, before the country of Canada was even formed.
In essence, treaties covered payments of goods and cash and protected hunting and fishing rights but they also saw the cession of First Nations’ land and the creation of reserves. The Crown’s betrayal of the treaties, along with paternalistic pieces of legislation like the Indian Act, have kept First Nations people subservient to Canadian governments in order to allow the settlement of the country.
Ontario Justice Patricia Hennessey ruled in December 2018 that the status quo was unacceptable. It was time to pay up and with costs.
Her decision left both Ottawa and Queen’s Park quaking.
Both governments are keenly aware this will cost them untold billions.
Upon hearing the ruling, Crown Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said Ottawa would not challenge it.
To be frank, how could they? By now, Ottawa is quite aware of the history of broken promises surrounding the treaties. Successive governments broke them as soon as they signed them.
But Ontario came out with its own decision to both appeal the ruling and start negotiations, both at the same time.
How can you put a price tag on 145 years of thievery, of resources pulled from the land by corporations often without Indigenous involvement or resource sharing?
It sounds like Ontario is speaking out of both sides of its mouth.
Rather than fulfilling its treaty obligations or providing communities with clean water, schools, health care and housing, Queen’s Park is using its money to take First Nations to court, said Sol Mamakwa, the NDP critic for Indigenous Relations and the Kiiwetinoong MPP.
Ontario says it is just reserving its right to appeal but at the same time going forward with so-called “good faith” negotiations, explains Sara Mainville, an Indigenous law expert and partner at OKT Law. (She was not involved in the case.)
To Mainville this looks like a leverage tactic. “If they don’t like what they hear in the mediation room, they’ll appeal,” she said.
Ogimaa Duke Peltier, Chief of Wiikwemkoong First Nation, a Robinson-Huron nation, said the province is sending a “mixed message.” “I’m still hopeful things will resolve through amicable relations. It has always been our way,” Peltier said.
Hennessey’s decision was a watershed, one that could affect all the other numbered treaties in Canada, Mainville explained.
The treaty clearly spells out that annuities would escalate as more resource development occurred. That plainly never happened. While this exact wording does not exist in other treaties, First Nations chiefs who signed the numbered treaties had an oral understanding that all would benefit and everything would be shared in good faith.
How much is Ontario on the hook for? That is anyone’s guess. But how can you possibly put a price tag on all that was lost?
The Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850 gives 21 Ontario First Nations an annuity linked to resources taken from their lands. The payment has been $4 per year for 145 years, Tanya Talaga writes.