PERTH - Anglers, hunters, and cottagers vented their frustrations at not being included in the negotiations for the Algonquin land claim agreement-in-principle at a public meeting last week.
"Existing private land users are going to be displaced from this (Crown) land," asserted Matt Demille, assistant manager of fish and wildlife services, of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH). "Public lakes are going to become private lakes. We may have trouble accessing these different lakes and rivers."
Demille was speaking at a public information session on the land claim at the Perth Royal Canadian Legion hall on Friday, Feb. 22, which was sponsored by the OFAH, Federation of Ontario Cottagers Associations (FOCA), and the Canadian Sportfishing Industry Association (CSIA).
For Demille, the conflict goes beyond simply accessing land.
"It's about maintaining our culture, our quality of life, our way of life," said Demille. "Some of these are traditions that have deep roots. They last centuries."
He also charged that conservation would be affected since "fish and wildlife resources will need to reach a crisis level before the provincial government steps in. They are supposed to conserve fish and wildlife resources... for ourselves and our children." Otherwise, he charged, the "future quality of public fishing opportunities will decline."
Angelo Lombardo, executive director of the OFAH, hastened to add that the meeting was not a forum for challenging the rights of the Algonquin people.
“We are not disputing the validity of the claim," said Lombardo. "The First Nations have a special claim under the constitution," he said, before adding that people looking to contest the legitimacy of their claim should take their grievances elsewhere.
But he stressed that non-natives too had more than enough grievances against the provincial and federal governments.
"(Non-natives) have the right to expect that their government is acting in their best interest," said Lombardo. "The process has seen an appalling lack of transparency. Have you," he said, pointing to the audience, "been made aware of this? Do you know what is at stake? Do you? When were you asked? They (the governments) will tell you that they have negotiated on your behalf and you won't (have) had a chance to have a say. The future of your fish and wildlife is at stake."
Much of the frustration for the OFAH came from the unknown.
"Many of the impacts of the Algonquin land claim are unknown," said Demille. "There is a lot of uncertainty. We have a lot of questions. The first question is, why were you not consulted? Were current users asked how they would be affected?"
He also alleged that, while the negotiators have told his group that non-native hunt camps will not be affected, some of his members have received letters from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources saying that their hunt camp was on crown lands in the land claim area and they may be asked to leave.
"It will displace people," Demille said. "It does not uphold laws... it does not consider the public's needs."
Kim Rhodes, president of CSIA, took an even more pointed attack on the government.
"If there is one thing we have learned in this process (it) is not to trust the government," said Rhodes. "They have misled us. They have misspent $20 million of our money," he alleged, of the money already spent on negotiations over the last 20 years, and related costs.
He charged that negotiators "seem to be calling the shots. They have no background in natural resource management. The negotiators are lawyers. They are not conservation specialists."
He also challenged the assertion that the agreement-in-principle presented in December was still a work-in-progress, open to revision after public meetings.
"This is essentially the final treaty, unless people yell bloody murder," said Rhodes. "The title 'preliminary draft' is pure fantasy."
As for the public meetings, like the one to be held at the Perth Lions Club hall, 50 Arthur St., on Thursday, March 7, from 3 to 8 p.m., he dismissed those as an exercise in "simply putting a check in a box to create the illusion of consultation."
Terry Rees, executive director of FOCA, also expressed concerns with the "opaque" nature of the discussions.
"We feel like we have been shut out," said Rees. "Are we interested? You're damn right we're interested."
Rees called it a "surprise and fairly offensive," that he and the other groups present had not been consulted on the issues. He also charged that even the municipal governments in the area "were complicit in this," since, he said, they provided the two higher levels of government with parcels of land in their areas that could become part of the pack.
"We are clearly worried and want to be part of the consultation," said Rees.
However, Rees hastened to add that his group simply wants answers and is willing to work in cooperation with the Algonquins. He pointed to one member who had built and maintained a private road on his property that runs into what will become Algonquin territory. He does not mind sharing the road, but simply wants answers about its future.
During the question and answer session, there was a myriad of questions, including accusations about native spear fishing and poaching near Wesport.
"We're not the Ministry of Natural Resources," said Greg Farrant, government affairs and policy manager for the OFAH. "The First Nations have certain rights under Section 35 of the constitution... (which) quite frankly, they are right that we don't have and never will have."
The discussion also extended to the proposed 30,371-acre Crotch Lake Provincial Park.
"It won't be run by the Algonquins," said Demille. "It will be co-managed by the Algonquins and the Ontario government. We don't know what that means."
"It (the park) is not just proposed," said Shirley Giffen. "It is recommended," though she feels it is at odds with provincial policy.
"The justification for having another park in the area is questionable," said Ed Giffen.
Cottager John Duffy pointed to a public, two-acre island in the middle of his bay, surrounded by 87 cottages, which is used by everybody for camping. The tiny island is now part of the land claim.
"It's the people's island," said Duffy. "To privatize it just strikes us as bizarre."
Paul Ameral reiterated that he bore no ill will towards the Algonquins.
"Nobody is arguing that there is a legitimate claim," said Ameral. "Of course, I don't want it to be me," that is affected, negatively, by the outcome.
Farrant agreed that the likes of Chief White Duck "have always been open to discussion and sharing their views with us and hearing our side." He added that, until this past December, "to a large extent, the Algonquin people were just as well-informed as we were" on the issue.
Algonquin Chief Doreen Davis, of the Shabot Obaadjiwan in Sharbot Lake, was in attendance at the meeting.
"We were there just to listen," said Davis. "We documented a lot of the questions and concerns," from the meeting, which she brought to the attention of the negotiators during a conference call on Monday, Feb. 25.
"We are trying to listen carefully to hear those concerns," said Davis. "I came back with a lot of material."
She said that she would encourage people with questions to attend the information sessions around the province, and in Perth, starting in March. She will be in attendance at the Perth and Kingston meetings.
"There (those meetings) would be a more appropriate place to answer those questions," she said. "It's quite intense. If I were in that chair on the other side, I would be asking those very same questions."