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Algonquin Land Claim: What it All Means

(First published in Fish Hunt Ride magazine in January 2018)

After 25-years of negotiations, there’s now a draft agreement between the Ontario and federal governments with the Algonquins of Ontario to address their 1772 petition to the Crown. The agreement establishes a framework for future treaty negotiations that will see the Algonquin’s in eastern Ontario give up their right to pursue past claims in exchange for $300 million in cash and property totaling 1,175 square kilometres.

Nnegotiating the actual treaty will take another five years at minimum. An Environmental Assessment of the proposed land transfer also needs doing.

The agreement calls for the transfer of 200 parcels of crown land to the Algonquins, about 4 percent of the total crown land in eastern Ontario. Territorial claims stretch southeast to include Bancroft and Sharbot Lake, and east and north to L’Orignal. Ontario counties affected include: Addington, Frontenac, Hastings, Lanark, Lennox and Renfrew, as well as the district of Nipissing and the city of Ottawa.

Land to be transferred totals 47,550 hectares or 117,500 acres. To put this in perspective, its acreage similar in size to privately owned larger ranches found throughout Alberta and British Columbia. However, the 200 distinct parcels of crown land are situated nearby long-established non-indigenous communities. Further, its land that in no way can be considered either northern or remote.

Over 1.4-million people live in and around the territory subject to the agreement, many of whom hunt, fish, mine or forest the affected lands, or enjoy connecting with nature in Algonquin Park — 90 percent of which is covered by the agreement. Without doubt, cottages, hunt camps and land-use permits will be impacted.

The agreement conflicts with well-established land-use rights of non-indigenous individuals and communities that date back, in many cases, well over a century. To this end, the Ontario government is committing to ensure, “no one who owns private property will be affected”, “access to Algonquin Park will remain open to all” and, “arrangements will be negotiated for existing recreation or hunt camps to continue on lands that will be transferred”. However, non-indigenous people remain concerned that a treaty will significantly curtail their current level of access rights and, more importantly, bring to an end their own relationship to land that has evolved and deepened over multiple generations of usage.

A number of Algonquin communities are also opposed to the agreement, but for other reasons – they’re being left out. Nine of the ten federally recognized Algonquin communities situated on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, and three other Ontario First Nation communities made up of people of partial Algonquin descent, are excluded.

Additionally, when treaty negotiations commenced in the early 1990’s, indigenous people were narrowly defined under Canada’s Constitution. Since then, the definition of who qualifies under the proposed treaty as Algonquin has been expanded to include nine additional satellite groups made up of mostly “non-status indians” claiming Algonquin ancestry. However, a report from the Quebec-based Algonquin Nation Secretariat claims over one-third of the agreements intended beneficiaries have insufficient Indigenous ancestry.

Who will ultimately benefit from the treaty is also of concern to Algonquin people. During his interview on Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation Chief Kirby Whiteduck stated, “Pikwakanagan is going to be drawing attention to the criteria because Pikwakanagan members are expressing concerns and questions about it”.

Vagary over who will benefit and to what degree concerns hunters and anglers. Fish and game populations inhabiting much of these easily accessed rivers, lakes and parcels of crown land already experience significant harvesting pressure. According to Jason Cox, a local area hunting and fishing guide, “come fall, prime hunting territory can look like a pumpkin patch”, in reference to the many orange-vested hunters.

Fear over a spike in fish and game harvesting is also generating anxiety. The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters believes that, “no one should assume their rights to hunt or fish are unlimited”, “certain limits may be appropriate and necessary” and, “the right to hunt and fish or to use any resources, either as a form of expression or as an aboriginal or treaty right, must be bound by the principles and practices of conservation and safety”. In response, the Ontario government is offering assurances that, “harvesting rights of Algonquin people will be subject to provincial and federal laws”, “fisheries management plans will be developed for the Algonquin settlement area including Algonquin Park” and, “Algonquin lands will be subject to the same land use planning and development approvals and authorities as other private lands”. This all sounds good on paper, but concerns over whether science-based resource management will be applied, and who if anyone will take responsibility for enforcement, continue to keep anxiety levels running high.

Presently, the harvest of game and fish by licensed resident and non-resident hunters and anglers in Ontario is tightly controlled by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, which applies science to determine yearly harvest limits. Unfortunately, “carded” first nations hunters and fishers are not subject to many of these same licensing and harvest rules. It’s fueling miss-giving’s anglers and hunters have over a treaty that could lead to unregulated and unsustainable indigenous hunting and fishing, and worse, open up potentially unsustainable commercial fishing operations similar to the indigenous commercial gillnet fishery on Lake Nipissing. However, it may be that by establishing a treaty, rules based on a blend of western science and indigenous knowledge will ensure sustainable commercial, ceremonial and sustenance harvesting practices — let’s hope.

With respect to Algonquin and other parks in the region, Algonquin people will for the first time have a hand in applying their indigenous knowledge to shape park plans and policies. However, responsibility for on-going park management will continue to rest with the Ontario government. Further, while no Algonquin Park land will be transferred, two non-operating parks and parts of five non-operating parks, will. In exchange, for every acre of park land transferred, 6 acres of new park land will be created (i.e. the proposed new 30,000 acre provincial park near Crotch Lake).

No doubt, negotiations are dragging on and growing increasingly complex. However, it’s up to all of us to take interest in the process to ensure important principles are not ejected for reasons of political expediency. Keep it simple, yes, but the final treaty has to be fair for all concerned. No good deal is founded on winners and losers.