When I took on the task of writing an update on the Algonquin land claim, I was unaware of the controversy I’d find. Unifying steps toward a “modern-day treaty” agreement? Think again.
The agreed upon fact is that Ottawa and much of Eastern Ontario sits on unceded Algonquin land. For 20 years, Algonquin representatives have negotiated a so-called “modern-day treaty” with the provincial and federal government. The government explains this concept as a treaty “ratified by special legislation protected under the Canadian constitution.”
The land in question is 36,000 km2, which stretches from the southeast of North Bay to Hawkesbury, on the Quebec border. The northern boundary follows the Ottawa River, the southern boundary lies where the Ottawa River watershed ends. It includes all Crown land in this area, including Parliament Hill and the National Capital Commission Greenbelt.
The history of the land claim dates back to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, in which the King of England declared that all unceded, unsold land would be reserved to certain aboriginal groups, including the Algonquin, for hunting. The Proclamation stated that land could not be purchased from the Aboriginals without first being negotiated in public through the Crown. The rights and freedoms recognized in the Proclamation are guaranteed under Section 25 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The recent claim began with a petition presented by the Pikwàkanagàn Algonquin to the Government of Canada. Ontario began negotiations with the Algonquin in 1991 and Canada followed soon after in 1992. Though talks broke down in 2001, they restarted in 2004 when Pikwàkanagàn hired Toronto lawyer Robert Potts to negotiate on behalf of the Algonquin.
In 2007, things became more complicated. The Algonquin of Ottawa left the negotiations and are opposed to the process, said Chief Paul Lamothe. In total, five communities disagree with the current land claim negotiations. Nine representatives of off-reserve communities and the chief and council of Pikwàkanagàn, a reserve community, remain at the table with the government.
So, why are some communities choosing not to participate in the current land claim process?
First, there’s the question of land.
The area subject to the land claim does not include all of the Algonquin land. Chief Grant Tysick of the Kinounchepirin Algonquin First Nation near Pembroke says the negotiations represent less than 1/3 of Algonquin territory. He says the traditional land runs from the headwaters of the Abitibi River in northeastern Ontario down both sides of the Ottawa River to Oka, Quebec. This division of Algonquin territory, he says, is a flaw of the land claim.
“How do you divide a nation and negotiate with that nation?” He said. “The Algonquin people never looked at those territories as Quebec and Ontario.”
Then there are the questions of who is and who is not Algonquin and how this should be determined, as well as who is representing whom at the negotiations table.
All government documents state that a representative of Ottawa Algonquin is participating in the negotiations. However, Lamothe says that this person does not represent the community and this affects the validity of the process.
“How can you have a land claim when you don’t have (everyone) included at the table?” He asked.
Many Algonquin not represented at the table say that the process lacks openness. Tysick says the negotiations today go on mainly behind closed doors leaving the Algonquin people “just as blind-sided as the general public.” The most recent update was published in September and is available on the province’s website.
Paula LaPierre, Principal Sachem of the Kichesipirini Algonquin First Nation is working to bring international attention to the issues facing her community and many other Aboriginal communities in Canada as an active member of United Nations institutions. She detailed her concerns regarding the land claim negotiation process in an open letter to the government. Chief Lamothe provides a clear explanation of his views on the Ottawa Algonquin First Nation website.
But does the land claim process in itself legitimize a colonial government? LaPierre writes in another open letter to the Algonquin people that “any participation with the Canadian or provincial ‘State‘ is a legal agreement to give up international rights.”
Despite the controversy, the land claim is moving along. The province has said that an Agreement-In-Principle will be established in 2011. Algonquin have received letters allowing them to register to vote on the upcoming agreement. After the agreement in principle is approved, the parties will begin to go through the legal steps of writing the treaty. This will then be voted on again. The province says the remainder of the process will take several years.
Non-aboriginal people often question the impact the land claims process will have on them. Lamothe stressed that the process is not about moving people off the land. The municipal government is currently obligated to consult the Algonquin before undertaking development projects on Crown land. An example of this was in 2006 when discussions of a light rail system were underway in Ottawa. Lamothe was part of the negotiations and said he gladly gave the green light to the project.
He explained that the city usually fulfills this obligation through a letter to the Algonquin of Ottawa outlining the project. Most relate to small projects such as widening a highway.
“What are you going to do? You’re not going to say no,” he said with a chuckle. “Common sense has to prevail.”
Lamothe and Tysick share visions of a reformed, inclusive land claim process that recognizes Aboriginal Peoples rights and compensates them for the use of resources of their land. Until that point, they say they will not participate in any way with the current land claim process, including voting on the Agreement-In-Principle.
“The Algonquin people don’t need a treaty with Canada,” Tysick said, “The Algonquin people need a relationship with Canada.”
photo by Justin Van Leeuwen