Band celebrates land claim signing

The annual Rainy River First Nations fish fry has been a much-anticipated tradition in the district for more than 30 years.
But this year, some 610 pounds of walleye fillets and 80 pounds of smoked sturgeon took a back seat to politicians, native luminaries, and the hundreds of people who came out to witness an historic event.
Even Mother Nature smiled last Friday afternoon when ominous skies gave way to brilliant sunshine and gentle breezes at the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre (Manitou Mounds) for the ceremonies around the signing of a land claim agreement between RRFN, the province, and the federal government.
The signing brought to a successful resolution an injustice that dates back to 1873 when seven separate First Nations (now known as Rainy River First Nations) signed Treaty #3 with the Government of Canada.
The treaty provided for seven reserves, which were surveyed in 1875.
But at that time, Ontario maintained that land could not be set apart without its confirmation—an opinion that was upheld by the courts of the day.
Consequently, the First Nations agreed to surrender six of those parcels of land in 1914-15. The land in question constitutes some 46,000 acres (72 square miles) and resulted in five of the First Nations being relocated to what is now known as Manitou Rapids.
In September, 1982, Rainy River First Nations filed a claim with Canada and Ontario, claiming the lands had been wrongfully taken from them under duress and thus began the long litigation process that culminated with Friday’s official signing.
Under the agreement, roughly one-third of the land in question was returned to its rightful owners along with $71 million in compensation.
Some of that money will be used to purchase the remaining land, which is currently in private hands, over the next 40 years on a willing-seller, willing-buyer basis.
The settlement agreement was reached back on Jan. 11 and subsequently ratified in a referendum by the First Nations in April. Friday’s official signing was the final step in what the participating parties referred to as a long, arduous journey.
“In signing this agreement, we honour our past by remembering our ancestors and relatives who endured,” a visibly-moved Chief Albert Hunter said in the band’s roundhouse prior to the signing.
Prior to his election last year, Chief Hunter had played an active personal role in the negotiations. “We want everyone to not only hear but bear witness to the signing of this agreement,” he added.
The land claim is the largest in Ontario history, as Indian and Northern Affairs minister Andy Scott noted when he took the microphone on the stage outside.
Scott also remarked on the beauty and appropriateness of the setting chosen for the event.
“I can’t imagine a more magnificent setting for this,” he said, referring to the ancient burial mounds located nearby. “They [the mounds] are a reminder of the collective debt to our ancestors and children.
“Now, with the signing of this agreement, we can all move forward together.”
Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant, who also is responsible for native affairs, echoed Scott’s sentiments when his turn at the microphone came. He paid lavish tribute to all those—from all parties—who made the agreement possible.
“Your leadership, your hard work, and determination has brought this to a successful conclusion,” he remarked. “This effort has spanned many generations.”
Bryant noted the agreement was not just the end of a long process, but also the beginning of a new one.
“I want to send a special message to the youth of Rainy River First Nations,” he remarked. “We have been given a chance to right a wrong done to you many years ago and we are committed to working with you in the future.
“I encourage you to take an active part in your future.”
Another party with a vested interest in the claim was the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources. MNR minister David Ramsay said the agreement will open the door to a new era of co-operation between government and First Nations on matters of resource management.
“At the MNR, we are pleased to welcome First Nations into a greater involvement in natural resource management,” he noted.
Also present at Friday’s ceremony was Ontario Regional Chief Charles Fox, who stressed the importance of continuity of the traditional ways in the future of all First Nations.
Chief Fox explained how after growing up in a residential school, where he was stripped of virtually all of his language and culture, he had to relearn the ancient ways from his parents.
“My father taught me survival skills and language while my mother taught me leadership skills,” he noted.
Prior to the signing and initialling of the agreement, Chief Hunter made a special presentation to seven people who were critical participants in the long process. Six were former chiefs and one was the band’s legal counsel, Rod McLeod.
The former chiefs—Willie Wilson, Sonny McGinnis, Delbert Horton, Jim Leonard, Ben Brown Sr., and Gary Medicine—and McLeod each were presented with an eagle feather in recognition of their service to the community.
As Chief Hunter noted, the eagle feather is the highest honour that can be bestowed upon an individual in his culture.
“It cannot be bought. You must earn it,” Chief Hunter stressed.
He then explained the significance of the eagle in native culture, saying the bird represents a duality of spirit between the material world and the spirit world.
It also is a messenger and conduit between man and the Creator.
As he was saying this, Chief Hunter suddenly paused, looked up, and smiled. Sure enough, there—high overhead—was a single eagle soaring in the sunlight directly over the assembly.
Chief Hunter then concluded the formal part of the celebrations with some personal observations regarding not only the past, but the future, as well.
“It has been a 90-year journey and today we embark on a new journey,” he remarked. “If you remember any of this day, I ask that you remember this: We are not about to stop now!
“We will move forward for the sake of our children and those yet unborn,” he vowed. “We are here today because someone cared about us and now we must care, too. We are a community of determination and commitment.”