Treaty discussions must continue for the benefit of all

First Nations leaders met last week with the Ontario government on the issue of unresolved land claims and so the current Manitoulin claim would have been on this agenda, if not as a line item than at least as a consideration.

Manitoulin has its own treaty, that of 1862, which was signed in Manitowaning over 150 years ago after a fairly sudden change of mind by First Nations leaders from across the Island, as historian Shelley Pearen notes in her pivotal book, Four Voices. This agreement allowed lands to be “reserved” for First Nations communities and the remainder of Manitoulin Island to be surveyed into townships with side roads and concession lines and, largely, parcels of 100 acre lots that were offered at that time to non-First Nation citizens for settlement. Manitoulin Island was, in fact, an early area of settlement of what came to be known as “New Ontario” because agricultural land was on offer, of interest to farm families from well established counties in southern (“Old”) Ontario. The proffered land had the added benefit of timber that would of necessity have to be cleared to make room for farming (but this timber was in itself a cash crop, while it lasted, especially the white pine trees that then grew here in abundance).

Fast forward to 1990, nearly a quarter century ago, and Manitoulin First Nations (represented by the United Chiefs and Councils of Manitoulin) and the province of Ontario came together to fine-tune the 1862 treaty, settling some of the unanticipated consequences of that document.

The most prominent among these was the issue of unopened, but surveyed, lakeside road allowances, for in 1862 it had been thought that access to Manitoulin, both on its Great Lakes shoreline and around its major inland lakes, would be via water and so road allowances were surveyed, and thus planned for, around and within Manitoulin Island.

As it happened, the majority of these lakeshore roads were never developed as settlers developed roadways along other surveyed routes.

But people enjoy living close to the water and so many people have built homes and cottages on these surveyed but undeveloped roadways.

In many cases, title to property was called into question as a home or cottage was built on property not included in the landowner’s deed and, in 1990, this was one specific area that was addressed. These unopened road allowances beside the water (and other inland ones as well) were no longer claimed by First Nations (as had been the understanding, for many years, that “if you’re not going to use it for the purpose for which it was intended, then we’ll take it back”) but were instead given to the municipalities.

A year-long debate in the mid-1990s, about the use of these lands, had the municipalities deciding unanimously to maintain ownership of these 66 foot wide strips of land, especially around the lakes, rather than sell them off as bits and pieces to abutting landowners.

There were other considerations at that time as well, but all was not wrapped up neatly so, some five years ago, the process re-commenced to determine, for example, the taxable status of band-owned lands and businesses that were not located on their original reserves.

This became an issue as First Nations communities began to purchase adjacent properties in order to increase their land bases, but were not inclined to pay the municipal property taxes that had been levied on these lands.

For some time, under duress, the Province of Ontario paid these property taxes on behalf of the First Nations communities but this was one of the issues that drove the most recent, and still not completely resolved, round of discussions.

It even led to some rural Island communities banding together, getting legal advice and paying into a ‘defense fund’ in the event they felt their tax bases were being threatened to the extent that they would need to take the matter to court to seek settlement, redress or simply to challenge the changes.

In fact one municipality, the Northeast Town, felt so strongly that this was the wrong approach that it dropped out of the Manitoulin Municipal Association for a time by way of protest. Needless to say, it also did not contribute to the proposed ‘defense fund,’ deeming the exercise to be both fruitless and inappropriate.

But the talks and the process go on and, for First Nations, municipal authorities and investors, there is often much at stake in the resource-rich areas of the Canadian Shield that is the defining characteristic of almost all of Northern Ontario (except, of course, Manitoulin Island).

It is against this backdrop of treaties written a century or more ago and their interpretation in the modern context that last week’s meetings took place.

Ontario, as a microcosm of Canada, is inhabited by both First Nations people and the descendants of the settler population that arrived in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and to some extent as late as the early twentieth centuries.

It is in our mutual best interests that we work out a way of cooperating that is useful for the good of all.

The McLean’s Mountain Wind Farm with its 24 controversial wind turbines is as good an example of sharing the wealth locally as anything, for the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnissing (formerly the United Chiefs and Councils of Manitoulin) were able to participate in the project that had been initiated by Northland Energy. The Green Energy Act, the enabling legislation for projects such as this, established that were a First Nation or First Nations involved with projects such as this one, then there would be a bonus paid per kilowatt hour: an additional 1.5 cents.

In this case, that works out to be a little less than a penny per kilowatt hour extra for both the Northland Energy Group and the First Nations represented by the UCCMM so, whether one likes the idea of the wind farm or not, this is a local example of the sharing of the benefits of using a natural resource.

It is in this spirit that discussions on treaties must continue.