LITTLE CURRENT — Land claim negotiations between Wikwemikong and the Ontario government, known as the Wiikwemkoong Islands Boundary Claim , have proceeded to the public input stage and, to that end, several public information sessions were held including one on September 1 between 3 and 8 pm at the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre, a second the following day with the same hours at the Killarney Veteran’s Memorial Hall, 58 Highway 637 (Charles St.), Killarney and a third which is to be held on Thursday; September 10, 3-8 pm, Courtyard by Marriott, College Room, 475 Yonge St. Toronto.
The sessions served two main purposes, to help educate the public on the parameters of the land claim and to gather input from the public to ensure that all patented lands (private property) are recorded in the data being used to calculate the cash portion of the settlement.
The land claim is actually a truncated portion of a larger land claim that stretches from the North Channel to the French River Park, explained Ontario Senior Negotiator Richard M. Aniol. “The area covered by these negotiations is that portion that we have been able to document (using historical descriptions and maps),” he explained. “Wikwemikong maintains that their rights and interests to the islands off the eastern shore of Manitoulin under the Treaty of 1836 have never been ceded or extinguished.”
The ultimate goal of the current negotiations is to resolve the long outstanding land claim, a claim that basically began before the ink was dry on the 1862 Treaty which purportedly ceded Manitoulin Island to the Crown, and to conclude those negotiations in “a fair and final settlement that will bring closure to these longstanding issues and foster reconciliation.”
Mr. Aniol explained that it is anticipated that a settlement will include both financial compensation and a transfer of lands to Wikwemikong. During the information session in Little Current a number of maps were on display showing the lands being claimed, those lands that are currently patented and the lands being proposed for transfer. “The land component of the proposed settlement includes provincial Crown land within the area of the boundary claim and alternative provincial Crown land on the mainland and Philip Edward Island and surrounding islands, as replacements for patented lands that cannot be returned to Wikwemikong Unceded Territory.
Mr. Aniol explained that patented lands, those that have been sold to private landowners, are never included in land transfers under land claims. “Ontario will not take away private property from third parties to settle land claims,” he said. “Any acquisition of private property is on a willing-seller/willing-buyer basis.” As well, the negotiations will ensure that access to private property will be protected.
In the case of private lands being within the land claim boundaries, the Crown either makes a financial settlement or transfers other comparable Crown lands to the First Nation to settle the claim.
Mr. Aniol explained that the selections of alternative provincial Crown land on the mainland and Philip Edward Island were influenced by a number of factors, including their proximity to Wikwemikong’s Point Grondine territory, proximity to infrastructure for community development and the historical presence that Wikwemikong has maintained in the area.
In addition to the interests of private land holders and other stakeholders within the land claim boundaries, the negotiations take into consideration the competing interests of other aboriginal and Metis claimants. In the case of the Wikwemikong land claim a competing interest has already been voiced by at least the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising.
In order to move the negotiations forward, Wikwemikong has agreed to abide by any decision of a “court of competent jurisdiction” that substantiates the other aboriginal claimant’s interests.
Another complicating factor in the Wiikwemkoong Islands Boundary Claim is a current court challenge to the 1862 Treaty which led to the federal government withdrawing from the negotiations. This issue has been dealt with through the signing of agreements which remove the lands in question from that challenge.
Some of the lands in the Wiikwemkoong Islands Boundary Claim may eventually be transferred to the federal government as part of the Additions To Reserves (ATR) process, but Wikwemikong has indicated that some of the territories under negotiation (particularly those at the junction of Highways 6 and 17) will likely not be entered into the ATR process as those lands will likely be utilized in economic development plans involving bank loans and mortgages.
Once the interests of all of the stakeholders within the boundaries of the claim have been entered into the data and the relevant financial and land transfers calculated and finalized, lawyers for the province and Wikwemikong will draw up a legal text of the proposed settlement.
That settlement text will then be presented to the Wikwemikong band membership where they will have the opportunity to say “yes” or “no” to the proposed settlement in a ratification vote. Once Wikwemikong has voiced its approval the Ontario government will approve the settlement. Only once the two parties have agreed will the agreement be final.
“The goal of negotiated settlements is to provide First Nations with fair compensation to right past wrongs and honour outstanding obligations,” noted Mr. Aniol. “Negotiated settlements also bring economic benefits and certainty to both First Nations and neighbouring communities, creating economic opportunities and the potential for new business partnerships in the region.”
Wikwemikong Chief Duke Peltier and a number of members of the Wikwemikong Lands department were on hand at the public information session as were members of the provincial negotiation team.
“This is all just one part of the whole process,” noted Chief Peltier, who pointed out that the points at issue in the Wiikwemkoong Islands Boundary Claim have been in contention since 1862 and that, in the end, it will be the people of Wikwemikong who decide the fate of these negotiations. “We’ve been at this for a very long time,” he said, adding that his community would continue to press for redress of their legitimate claims “as long as it takes. We aren’t going away.”