PERTH - The Algonquin First Nation has no intention of squandering the $300 million settlement they are seeking in their ongoing land claim.
The comment was made by a questioner who used the term “pissing away” during the question-and-answer session at a public meeting on the land claim at the Perth Lions Club hall on Thursday, March 7. The statement did not sit well with the presenters from the federal and provincial governments, or representatives from the Algonquin First Nation.
“I’m not surprised,” with the comment, said Allan Pratt, legal advisor to the Algonquins in Ontario. “(But) I’m not happy. I’d say, from my experience… we’ve seen a lot of different things. My hope is that we create a governance structure where that is unthinkable.”
Though born in Scotland, Pratt’s law firm now only handles First Nations cases, and he has been working on this land claim for many years.
“I would be very sad if I had devoted my life to the pissing away of valuable resources,” said Pratt. “That’s not why I am doing this.”
The man with whom he often shares the negotiating table, Brian Crane, representing the Province of Ontario, agreed that, in the past, land claim settlements were sometimes handed out to individual natives – but not in this instance.
“The assets are held by investment corporations for the benefit of everyone (in the First Nation),” said Crane. “(They are) usually conservative investments. None of these (payments) will be passed down to individuals.”
A recent mailer to his constituents from Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington MP Scott Reid called for greater transparency for the accounting books of First Nations chiefs and their councils. This in light of the leaked information about the financial track record of high-profile Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation.
But the negotiators were quick to distance themselves from these controversies, and to point out how the finances would be handled differently.
“That is our future seed money, for our future economy, for our prosperity,” said Pratt. “It will give the Algonquins an economic boost. And the economy of eastern Ontario too. They will have a land base, maybe not as much as would have gotten 150 years ago… (but) let us face it, we are all here to stay.”
During the presentations, Crane stressed to the assembled that the agreement-in-principle (AIP) was in no way a done deal.
“This is a step leading towards an agreement,” said Crane. “It is not a binding contract… nobody has agreed to it. It is not a done deal. We want your comment.”
Crane added that hunt clubs would continue to operate as per normal for the time being, and that their future would be part of future negotiations.
“Private lands are not being taken,” reiterated Crane.
Though about four per cent of Crown land in eastern Ontario is being transferred over, he stressed that does not mean that non-natives are excluded from those transferred lands. For example, access to lands transferred to the Algonquins could be given if “there are existing access routes across this land. Those rights will be protected,” said Crane.
The same is true of waterways.
“Those navigable waters, those public rights-of-way, will be protected,” said Crane, who also stressed that while native hunting and fishing rights were very important, the health of Ontario’s natural resources, for everyone’s continued enjoyment, was paramount. “Conservation is a fundamental principle. Conservation trumps everything,” said Crane. “The Algonquins must obey the law like everyone else.”
A harvest management plan has already been agreed to and a fish management plan for Algonquin Park has also been hammered out, but there are still competing interests that will need to be spoken to.
“It is inevitable since hunt camps are everywhere,” said Crane. “How are hunt camps able to continue operations, and how will the Algonquins continue to access their lands?”
Crane answered his own question by saying that a deal would have to be worked out under the auspices of the province.
Pratt also pointed out that, ideally, such a land claim should have been settled more than 150 years ago, and that the Algonquins first petitioned the crown back in 1772.
“The Algonquins have been here a heck of a long time, before Samuel de Champlain ventured up the Ottawa River,” Pratt said. “About 250 years after such a treaty should have been written… If this was 150 or 200 years ago, we would have 10 big lots,” in this agreement, not 200 small lots scattered across the region.
“It would look like the north shore of Lake Huron,” Pratt continued. “We are doing this after the fact… (But) the impact is going to be less than people fear.”
Pratt said that it was “staggering” that in the nation’s capital region, a treaty had never been signed between the Algonquins and the crown, and that the land remained unceded.
“The Algonquins have become the forgotten people of this land,” said Pratt.
Federal negotiator Ron Doering stressed that it was his job to “represent the non-native community. My instructions were very clear (to provide) timely and meaningful consultation with the non-native community and I think we are doing that. This is real consultation.”
Doering agreed that there was no “done deal,” and that there was still a lot of negotiating that needed to be done, and blank spaces that needed to be filled.
“It is not my job to say that this is a deal you should be pleased about,” said Doering. “These views are being heard and considered… we do not have a consensus on major issues. We need to make sure that your interests are understood.”
Other questioners at the session had queries about natives currently allowed to use nets and spears to catch fish, like spawning walleye, in places like Westport, Sharbot Lake and Otty Lake.
The questioner went so far as to accuse some Algonquin fishers of “raping” the waters.
“Under the law, the Algonquins have their traditional rights to hunt, fish, and trap,” said Crane. “There cannot be an agreement that abridges those rights. They have this aboriginal right that will not be extinguished.”
But Crane did concede that “if there is a conservation issue, the practice will be abridged.”
“There is nothing wrong with using a spear,” said Pratt. “If they are fishing for food. There is no right to rape anything and I don’t like to hear words like that.”
Later in the meeting, a questioner asked why, if “traditional” hunting and fishing methods were so important to natives, why they used modern equipment.
“You get to keep doing what you are doing, but you can use modern methods,” said Pratt.
When it comes to hunting in provincial parks, Crane said that the Algonquins do not have “an unlimited right to hunt in provincial parks.”
On a related hunting matter, a Norway Lake resident stated that she keeps her children inside during hunting season, but was worried that more year-round hunting by the Algonquins could be a safety hazard for her family.
Crane pointed out that provincial laws banning firing a gun within a certain distance of a road or a house would still apply to the Algonquins too.
On a community level, the men were asked if the final agreement would bring the people of eastern Ontario together or drive them further apart.
“I would hope that the agreement would bring us together,” said Pratt, who added that he hoped that meetings like the one in Perth, “will help us dispel a lot of these myths and misinterpretations,” and that, maybe, fearful non-natives would see that “these guys don’t have horns and aren’t so different from us.”
Lands transferred from the Crown to the Algonquins will become private land, not reservation land, and will be subject to municipal laws and taxation.
“They are fitting in, they are working with you,” said Crane.
All but three parcels of land would fall under the jurisdiction of municipal taxation, one being north of Whitney, one north of Brown Lake, and one north of Algonquin Park. They will be exempted “because the land is so large,” but these lands will be taxed if there is development on them, though Crane admitted that these three parcels constitute about 50 per cent of the land claim territory.
Speaking of jurisdictions, the AIP would not extinguish any claims that the Quebec Algonquins may have to a land claim.
“(We) can’t take away any rights that the Quebec Algonquins may have,” said Doering.