District land claim a done deal at last

After 22 years of negotiations through two layers of government and consultation with district municipalities, it finally came down to the people who mattered most.
And their answer was an overwhelming “yes.”
On Saturday, Rainy River First Nations band members approved a land claim settlement that provides millions of dollars in compensation and more than 46,000 acres in land that once belonged to their ancestors.
And in so doing, they closed a chapter of injustice that goes back 90 years.
“The people have spoken,” a relieved Chief Albert Hunter said Tuesday. “It’s finally over.”
Of the 544 eligible voters, both on and off the reserve, 307 returned their ballots, with 90 percent of those in approval.
“It wasn’t just a simple majority,” Chief Hunter enthused. “It was an absolute majority.”
The referendum was the last legal stepping stone to the final resolution of a claim that involves six former reserves in the district that were expropriated by the province and Ottawa in 1914 and 1915, forcing the displaced families to relocate at what is now the Manitou Rapids reserve.
Negotiations between the band, province, and federal government concluded with a landmark agreement reached last spring and formally endorsed by Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant, also the minister responsible for native affairs, at the annual fish fry at Manitou Rapids.
At that time, Bryant pledged the province would contribute millions in compensation as well as a portion of the land. The rest will come from Ottawa.
The settlement includes $71 million as compensation for loss of the use of the land over the past 90 years, as well as repatriation of roughly one-third of the original holdings that now is Crown land.
The remaining two-thirds currently is in private hands, which will be purchased as it becomes available with the interest on the money portion of the settlement.
The principal will be held in trust for future generations.
Chief Hunter stressed expropriation of the remaining land was never in the cards. All future repatriation will be on a strictly “willing-seller/willing-buyer” basis over the next 40 years.
“That was part of the original instructions by our elders to the negotiators,” he said, noting that since the land was expropriated in the first place, there were no intentions of repeating past injustices.
“We want the people to respect the history of this,” he remarked.
The official signing ceremony will take place May 20 during the annual fish fry at Manitou Rapids. Chief Hunter said it promises to be a celebration for the ages.
“I spoke with the federal [Indian Affairs] minister [Andy Scott] on March 13 and he said, ‘I’ll be seeing you on the 20th,’” remarked Chief Hunter.