While the Perth Legion hall is far removed from the flying banners and protests of the Idle No More movement, the ongoing national debate about Canada’s relationship with the First Nations peoples still came to the surface last week.
Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington MPP Randy Hillier hosted an information session on the Algonquin land claim agreement in principle at the Royal Canadian Legion hall on Tuesday, Jan. 29, and he was quick to state what the evening was not about.
“It’s not about Idle No More. It’s not about Attawapiskat. It’s not about Caledonia. It’s not about the millions spent on the Indian Act,” said Hillier.
The agreement in principle between the Algonquins and the federal and provincial government was publicly released on Dec. 13, 2012 and, having read through the document, “I found it necessary to have this meeting. This process has not been very inclusive of people.”
While he stressed that he was not speaking on behalf of the negotiators, only himself as an MPP, he added that he wanted to “bring this document into the public domain,” even though it was “not set in stone.” He noted there will be more years of negotiation after public consultation, as well as votes at Queen’s Park, the federal parliament and in a referendum of the Algonquin people.
While Hillier expressed what the meeting was not about, he admitted difficulty in deciding how to address the First Nations community.
“I will use the word Indians, out of respect for Indians, because they deserve respect,” said Hillier. “I don’t know the proper name for them.”
At this, attendee Maureen Bostock called out “they’re First Nations,” at which Hillier, appearing not to hear her, told Bostock that he would be taking questions at the end of the meeting.
“He never used that language (Indian) again throughout the rest of the evening,” said Bostock afterwards, with Hillier tending to refer to Algonquins. “So, I was proud of that.”
While Hillier stressed that the meeting was not about the Attawapiskat First Nation, or other First Nations whose accounting practices have been called into question, he noted that “we’ve had some pretty clear examples where individuals don’t have a voice in those monies or lands and we can see things are going wrong. We get unaccountable governance…and a disempowered people. We have seen examples of that recently.”
Hillier said he had received correspondence from Algonquins themselves who “do not feel that they have been engaged” either.
However, Hillier defended the Algonquins against claims that the agreement would be bad for social order.
“I don’t want this agreement as a smoke screen for people to do whatever they want,” said Rob Wiltson, doing things like blocking roads.
“The Algonquins in eastern Ontario are not the Mohawks in Caledonia. There are differences,” said Hillier. “You can only judge people based on their previous actions.”
The meeting drew a wide variety of opinion about the land claim process, and how a final agreement would be implemented.
“This claim has cast a cloud over the title of all crown land in eastern Ontario,” said Hillier, and thereby “hampering economic development.”
Hillier drew a chuckle when he pointed out that hammering out such a land claim was difficult because of the competing jurisdictions of the federal and provincial governments. Migratory birds, for example, according to Hillier, are covered by the federal government, whereas grouse and partridge are covered under the auspices of the province.
Rick Antankowitz of Central Frontenac identified himself as a taxpayer who is “upset” when he sees the land claims process in motion.
“As a taxpayer, do we not have the right to have a say on what is done with this land, as a people who are interested in this?” said Antankowitz.
He expressed concerns that “there has to be some better solution than to hand it (the land) on to a select group of people… (The land) has been available to all Canadians without prejudice.”
Others saw the situation differently, that the claim was righting a historic injustice.
“People’s lands were taken,” said Elizabeth Snyder. “For nearly 300 years, that has not been addressed. That’s a long time to be on other people’s land, rent free.”
Snyder also expressed her view that the Algonquin’s demands were reasonable.
“We have gotten off quite lightly,” Snyder said. “They could have asked for more. We are trying to right a wrong. This is a good step.”
“We cannot undo history,” said Hillier in reply. “What we have done in the past has not worked,” he added, referring particularly to collective land ownership to be found on reservations, for example.
Bostock stood up during the question and answer session to reiterate Snyder’s point.
“We are getting to address a wrong that goes back 200 years,” said Bostock. “All of this land, the land that this building is built on, this town is built on, is unceded Algonquin land.”
For others in attendance, the dominant issue was how their rights as landowners, fishers, hunters and foresters would be protected.
Peter Garrett of Central Frontenac has a problem that many landowners in the area face regarding the land claims issue. He owns land near Silver Lake, and the Algonquins have claimed an area that is landlocked.
“The only access is through my property,” said Garrett, who wondered if the Algonquins would be allowed to use the private road into the area.
Another hunter, Al Ireton, a former resident of Drummond Centre, had the opposite problem.
In order to access his 88 year-old hunting camp, “we would have to drive through eight kilometers of native land. We’ve been told that we will lose access to those hunting grounds. This is part of our hunting heritage too,” though Ireton added that he has spoken to other hunting camps in the area, and been informed that the Ministry of Natural Resources has told that “it is status quo.”
Terry Bingley of Lanark also wondered if his non-registered trap line from Dalhousie Lake to Bottle Lake would be recognized by the land claims negotiators.
“If it is not documented, the negotiating team is not aware of it,” said Hillier, who urged constituents to get any documentation to the negotiators as soon as possible to create a paper trail.
Hunters were also in attendance to present their views on access to hunting areas.
“We used to hunt and fish on crown land, (even) before the time of hunting licenses, to feed our families,” said Murray Myers, of the five generations of family members who enjoyed the outdoors.
Another hunter, Wendell Crosbie, feared that the agreement would allow the Algonquins “to have rights to hunt everything, excluding moose and elk, 365 days a year.”
“No, there are some nuances in there,” replied Hillier. “Personal use and personal consumption, there is no limit on the transferred lands.”
“I have a lack of trust in government and negotiations,” continued Crosbie. “The trust is not there. They never consulted with the people of Canada.”
Transfer of land
Earlier in the evening, Hillier explained that the agreement involves the transfer of not less than 117,500 acres of provincial crown land to the Algonquins, who will set up a corporation to manage the land.
“They will own their land just as I own mine,” said Hillier. “I think this is an absolutely exceptional way of doing it.”
He was also quick to dispel rumours about the project, pointing out that it does not affect private property, will not result in the closure of Algonquin Park, and no new reservations will be created. The Algonquins will also receive a one-time, lump sum of $300 million.
“These lands will be subject to municipal zoning and property taxation just like other property is,” said Hillier. “Future land claims should follow this model and give transferred land directly to tribes. It is only fair that people are treated the same.”
Hillier did take exception to the provisions made to the Algonquins regarding the free use of the Rideau Canal.
“I don’t believe that is fair or justifiable,” said Hillier. “To give, forever, use of the Rideau Canal.”
He also expressed his concerns about language in the agreement in principle regarding native logging rights.
“The wording in the agreement would, to me, seem that there would be an advantage to Algonquins to cut on crown land,” said Hillier. “I believe that it (the agreement) is sufficiently vague that it needs to be tightened up.”
While Bostock may not have agreed with everything Hillier said, she was glad of the opportunity for the community to discuss the matter.
“There is a lot of old animosity and old racism that infects our community,” said Bostock, after the meeting. “People have to voice what they think,” she added, noting that she appreciated the forum offered by Hillier.
“Even though Europeans were here for a long time, (First Nations) people were here before us,” said Bostock.
The parcels of land are located in Port Elmsley, Kilmarnock, northern Lanark County, and in parts of Renfrew and Frontenac counties.