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OPINION: The Robinson-Huron Treaty and the welcome respite of the courts

For those of you who live on these lands, you will immediately appreciate the immensity of the Robinson-Huron claim and the ramifications, both positive and challenging, for all of us.
Michael Atkins, president, Northern Ontario Business

As I write, our prime minister has just returned from his costume party tour of India and bully boy Trump has threatened massive tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel products, while denying his relationship with a porn star with whom he has a confidentiality agreement, and announced he was going for an all-inclusive holiday tour of North Korea to talk nukes. 

Not to be outdone, the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario has just wound up its abbreviated leadership contest by sending its faithful home early on the day of reckoning because they neglected to rent out the hall for a full day, somehow not anticipating they would be unable to count votes in the time allotted. Happily, by 10 o'clock (about the same time of night their previous leader a month earlier had gone running from Queen’s Park after announcing he had been accused of sexual improprieties), the party announced Doug Ford the winner to the shock and amazement of Christine Elliott, who won more votes and more ridings but somehow managed to lose for the third time in a row (see Hillary Clinton for therapy).

It would be funny if it wasn't so scary.

In stark contrast to these flights of madness and instability that seem to be the norm in the political sphere, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice is proceeding with a welcome air of serenity to consider a case of great importance to Northern Ontario. It has to do with the terms and conditions of the Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850. At that time, 24 First Nations entered into two treaties with Mr. William Robinson, who was appointed by the Crown to negotiate a surrender of their territorial land north of the north shore of Lake Superior and north of the north shore of Lake Huron.

Not surprisingly, it has to do with whether the governments of Ontario and Canada have fulfilled their part of the bargain.

The Crown agreed to an annual annuity. The last adjustment to this payment was in 1874. It currently stands at $4 per capita paid to the beneficiaries of the treaties, and to this day government representatives give out toonies to those First Nations people who show up for this odd, some would say demeaning, ritual.

The plaintiffs assert much more than $4 per person is owed to them. The minimum is that the annuity should have been indexed from the time of execution, but the more fulsome expectation is that these First Nations are owed a share of the net wealth that has been generated from these lands they gave up so long ago.

For those of you who live on these lands, you will immediately appreciate the immensity of this claim and the ramifications, both positive and challenging, for all of us.

The court has been in session for many weeks and the witnesses include Elders and chiefs speaking of their knowledge of historical relations between the colonial government and First Nation peoples. It includes economic historians providing context to the times.

Early on, the court had to consider the propriety of livestreaming and archiving the court proceedings. Not surprisingly, the lawyers for the Ontario and Federal governments were dubious about this enterprise, but were most particularly concerned about the court proceedings being archived and available to anyone from the public who might be interested. The issue among others was that the public could “manipulate and rebroadcast misleading clips from the edited livestream” which of course suggests a fear of our new art form, “fake news.”

Happily, the court (with Justice Patricia Hennessy presiding) concluded these proceedings may be the most comprehensive history lesson we will ever get on the development of our land and the relationship between the peoples who inhabit it. The archive stood.

My guess is that the concern for the archive by the defendants had more to do with the passive-aggressive relationship our governments promulgate with our First Nations people. Reconciliation on one hand and legal opposition on the other; an archive more embarrassing than misleading.

I recommend you Google Robinson-Huron Treaty yourself and contrast the manic gyrations of our modern-day political actors with the patience and civility of our First Nations communities asserting their rights in a court of law located in a temporary meeting room in a hotel in downtown Sudbury.