“A group of Algonquins in West Quebec is preparing to launch what could be the largest land claim in Canada’s history — for a swath of territory covering 650,000 square kilometres across eastern Ontario and West Quebec.
Stretching from Sault Ste. Marie and Cochrane in northern Ontario through much of eastern Ontario, including Ottawa, the territory cuts across West Quebec to Montreal, and all the way to the confluence of the Saint-Maurice and St. Lawrence rivers at Trois-Rivieres. About two-thirds of the land is in Quebec”.
Gilbert Whiteduck, chief of the Algonquins of Maniwaki known as the Kitigan Zibi, says the process will begin soon with the presentation of the territorial map to Quebec Premier Jean Charest to underline the claim. Whiteduck says the map and accompanying documents were presented to the federal aboriginal affairs minister earlier this year, and the group is now seeking a meeting with Charest to do the same.
“We are getting ready to present the territorial map to Premier Charest as soon as he is able to give us a time, to lay out what it is we are expecting from Quebec, specifically,” Whiteduck said.
The submission, being made under the umbrella of the Tribal Council that represents six of the nine Algonquin communities in West Quebec, is the first step on a long and arduous road to negotiations and, potentially, compensation.
Ontario’s Golden Lake Algonquins for instance, first made their claim for eastern Ontario in 1983, but it took nearly 10 years before the federal government recognized the claim. Negotiations that began in 1994 have dragged on, and a non-binding agreement-in-principle is now expected early next year.
Whiteduck says the plan is not to demand return of the land to the Algonquin. He recognizes that land settlement “is going to be way down the line” but aboriginal communities, which face serious socio-economic problems, have to be able to utilize the resources of their land to improve their lives.
“What we want to say to the premier is, ‘This is our territory, and since you are premier of Quebec, we want to be able to sit down with you and discuss the fact that resources are being taken from the land and there should be some kind of sharing arrangement here,’” he said. “We want the federal government to also sit at a table with us.”
The federal government has conceded nothing, but it may have implicitly recognized the Algonquin right to aboriginal title because native leaders are regularly consulted by all levels of government when land in the national capital region has to be sold or developed. The National Capital Commission, for instance, consults Quebec Algonquins on the future of Gatineau Park. The city also does the same and in 2007, the development of the old Rockcliffe airbase by Canada Lands Corporation was put on hold when the Algonquin intervened.
While it has acknowledged that the Kitigan Zibi submission meets the test of a land claim, the federal government has refused to formally engage them in discussions until all the nine Quebec Algonquin communities sign on.
“Canada has funded the Algonquins of Western Quebec to research and prepare a comprehensive claim, but has not yet received a claim submission from all nine Quebec Algonquin First Nations. A formal claim submission is required before the claims process can begin,” federal aboriginal affairs spokeswoman Genevieve Guibert wrote in an email.
But Whiteduck says the government did not put such a condition on Ontario’s Golden Lake Algonquins when they made their claim for eastern Ontario — and so the Kitigan Zibi and their allies will press on.
The land being claimed encompasses more than the 36,000-square kilometres in eastern Ontario that the Golden Lake Algonquin claim, and is currently the subject of negotiations between them and federal and Ontario governments. It includes Brockville and Cornwall, areas that have long been considered Mohawk territory. The land area is also larger than the 350,000 square kilometres that the Inuit got to establish the self-governing territory of Nunavut.
Aboriginal land claims in Canada have long been controversial, with assertions by some, including the Canadian government at one time, that under colonization by France, and later England, native people lost title and right to land ownership. But a series of Supreme Court decisions rejecting the argument that aboriginals lost their land ownership under colonization recognized First Nation rights to land — unless they sold it or gave it away in a treaty.
Whiteduck says the Algonquin did neither under French and British rule, and the land they occupied 400 years ago, remains theirs to this day.
“We the Algonquin Nation never signed a treaty giving up our lands. All our leaders, our warriors, there was no time we ever signed anything that extinguished or gave up our rights to our lands even though we were forced onto reserves,” Whiteduck said.