While the chiefs and members of the 21 First Nations in the Robinson-Huron Treaty are celebrating a victory, they are fully aware there's still a long road ahead.
Those northeastern Ontario First Nations won a lawsuit obligating the federal and provincial governments to increase the annual annuity as agreed upon in the treaty.
The annual $4 annuity paid by the Crown per treaty member has not changed since 1874, even though there was a commitment to increase the annuity as revenues generated on their territories increased.
Superior Court Justice Patricia Hennessy said in her decision the treaty was not meant to be a one-time transaction, but rather established a mutually beneficial and respectful ongoing relationship for the sharing of land and resources in the Territory.
“I find that the Crown has a mandatory and reviewable obligation to increase the treaties’annuities when the economic circumstances warrant,” Hennessy said in her ruling.
Chief Dean Sayers, of the Batchewana First Nation of Ojibways near Sault Ste. Marie, said at a Dec. 27 press conference in Sudbury that the decision is a long time coming.
“For the Anishinaabe, these treaties are not mere real estate transaction,” Sayers said. “They were, and are, a means by which the Anishinabek will live in harmony with the newcomers and maintain relationships in unforeseeable and evolving circumstances.
“It took 168 years for our voices to be heard regarding our discontent with the lack of full implementation of the treaty. We believe that with a clear determination from the court on the nature and content of the treaty obligation to augment the treaty annuities, the Crown should initiate meaningful negotiations to implement the decision in accordance with the principle of reconciliation.”
Exactly how much the settlement will be, whether it will be retroactive and whether each member of the First Nations will receive money will all be part of the negotiation process, said Ogimaa Duke Peltier, the chief of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island.
“This is a celebratory occasion simply from the fact our voices have finally been heard,” he said. “We feel the courts have respected our Anishinaabe perspective, and have honoured Anishinaabe law and put it on equal footing before foreign court system.”
Mike Restoule, chair of the Robinson-Huron Treaty litigation fund, said it's been a long journey, but “we're very happy today.”
“Now we're waiting to see what the reaction of the provincial government will be, because we don't know where they stand in the reconciliation process,” Restoule said. “I'm optimistic, though, because we know that Minister Greg Rickford, Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, is an honourable man and that he'd be willing to sit down with us to talk about this process.”
Restoule said now that Phase 1 is complete, he's hoping both the provincial and federal governments will come to the table to negotiate a settlement. Failing that, they head back to court likely at the end of September 2019.
“We will have to defend ourselves in justifying the increase to the annuity, and it will likely take six weeks,” he said.
He's determined to prevent that from happening, though.
“We're hopeful the governments will come to the table and say, 'OK, you've proven your point, and we'll sit down and determine a settlement,'” Restoule said. “I think it's important for both governments to do that, because they've always said they want to do right by Indigenous people. This has been a long process, and it's time for us to settle it.”
The lawsuit was launched in September 2014, and got underway Sept. 25, 2017, in Thunder Bay. The case moved to Garden River First Nation and Manitoulin Island. The last part of Phase 1 was in Greater Sudbury and got underway in November 2017.