First Nations’ land claim passes one more hurdle

With the stroke of a pen (actually, 450 pen strokes), Rainy River First Nations came one step closer this week to settling one of the longest-standing land claims in Canadian history.
Tuesday afternoon, the principal negotiators representing the federal and provincial governments, as well as the band, sat down in the Community Resource Centre at Manitou Rapids, about 40 km west of Fort Frances, to initial the final agreement to the RRFN surrender claim, which had been approved in principle last May.
Now all that remains is a ratification vote by the band members, which is tentatively scheduled for March 12.
“This means all negotiations are complete,” said a relieved Rod McLeod, legal counsel and official negotiator for the band. “All the parties are agreed.
“This is the last step before the community votes,” he added.
The claim originally was filed in 1982 and formal negotiations with the federal government began in 1994.
McLeod has been involved almost from the beginning and understandably was pleased to be present to initial the final draft—consisting of 150 pages—on behalf of the band.
“This is a good day,” he remarked.
McLeod noted copies of the agreement will be mailed out Jan. 28 to all 450 voting members of the band—along with a ballot on which each member either can approve or decline the deal.
But he is convinced there will be no problem with ratification.
“I have absolutely no reason to believe it won’t pass,” McLeod predicted. “In fact, I’d be surprised if it isn’t a landslide.”
Prior to the official signing Tuesday, in which each of the three parties was required to initial all 150 pages, band elder Dave DeBungee gave a prayer of thanksgiving before purifying the documents with smoldering sage.
He then offered the same purification rites to all the people gathered to witness this piece of history.
Then it was Chief Albert Hunter’s turn to say a few words, first thanking the many people who had preceded him as chief and had a hand in steering the matter to the successful events of Tuesday.
He then shared some personal thoughts with the band members present.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Chief Hunter remarked. “Today marks a critical step in righting a wrong that is over 90 years old.”
He acknowledged it was far from smooth sailing. “There were times when I never thought this day would arrive, yet here we are,” he said.
The details of the final settlement are complex and involved all three levels of government in addition to Rainy River First Nations.
It also includes a lump-sum payment of more than $70 million as compensation for lost revenues while the land was in other hands as well as to purchase land still privately-owned should it become available in the future.
The land settlement totals more than 46,000 acres, of which 15,000 acres consists of Crown land. These lands were deemed to have been improperly appropriated by the federal government in 1912.
The official transfer of title and compensation cheques is scheduled to take place during the annual Manitou Rapids fish fry in May.