WHITEFISH RIVER FIRST NATION – Members of the Whitefish River First Nation (WRFN) are cautiously celebrating the news that the Province of Ontario has agreed to engage in discussions over land claim issues that date back more than a century.
“The letter from the province arrived back in November,” said WRFN Chief Shining Turtle, “but with Christmas and everything going on there wasn’t a lot of uptake in the community. We just recently re-issued our communications to the community and we anticipate things will start to pick up.”
Given the amount of time that has passed since the original boundary errors were made and the intransigence of successive governments to address the issues, great credit must be given to the community for its perseverance, said Chief Shining Turtle.
“There is nothing promised,” cautioned the chief, “but it is very good news that they are coming to the table.”
Initial discussions on this round of pressure began in 2002, and the federal government has settled its end of the claims. The WRFN community voted 96 percent to accept the federal settlement offer.
While there might have been scepticism that any progress would be made during the tenure of a Progressive Conservative government, Chief Shining Turtle said that credit was due. “We have to give (Premier Doug) Ford credit,” he said. “This letter came right out of the blue saying ‘we want to negotiate your land claim’.”
The land claim issues arose from the original surveying that took place following the Robinson-Huron Treaty negotiations that were even recognized by the surveyor who laid out the boundaries of the Whitefish River First Nation community. “But he said that he had no way to address the issue,” said Chief Shining Turtle. What followed was years of pressure and petitions to the two levels of government to correct the wrong. “Now we are working on getting our land back,” he said.
Chief Shining Turtle declined to outline the size of the provincial claim, saying that had not been fully determined yet, and adding that any number he could provide off the top of his head could have impact on the negotiations.
Going forward, the chief noted, would involve “clearing a path for regaining what is rightfully ours.”
The traditional lands of the WRFN community stretched as far as Wahnapitae as outlined by Shawanosowe, one of the chief men consulted by the government in preparation for the Robinson-Huron Treaty negotiations. While a significantly smaller territory was agreed to by community leaders at the time of the treaty, a major miscommunication ensued when it came to setting out the boundaries. Point Grondine experienced a similar miscommunication which centred largely on the difference between the French league that the Anishinaabe used and the miles common to the English negotiators.
The negotiations with the province are in “very early days,” cautioned Chief Shining Turtle. “I am so familiar with the land claim process I know that we are in very early days.”
But the chief affirmed that the WRFN community will be “engaged in the process all along the way. When we arrive at a settlement it will be with the support of everybody.”
Still, after a very challenging year of pandemic, Chief Shining Turtle said he was very excited about at last starting down the path to a settlement.
“We have a lot to be proud of getting through this past year the way we have,” he said. “That is something else our community can be very proud of.”