Town takes step towards reconciliation

Sam Odrowski

After roughly 20 years of litigation over Point Park between Agency One First Nations and the Town of Fort Frances a historic partnership has formed.

In the spirit of reconciliation, a Joint Declaration of Friendship and Intent was signed by Mayor June Caul, Couchiching FN Chief Brian Perrault, Mitaanjigamiing FN Chief Janice Henderson, Naicatchewenin FN Chief Wayne Smith, and Nigigoonsiminikaaning FN Chief Will Windigoat Point Park last Wednesday.

While the document is not legally binding, it sets out the town’s and First Nations’ intentions of working together as friends to resolve any outstanding issues outside of court.

“There’s a lot of value in working together because we’ve been getting nowhere fighting with the lawyers and the consultants,” Chief Windigo remarked. “Nobody’s winning when we deal with the courts.”

For the Town of Fort Frances, nearly half a million dollars was budgeted for the litigation over Agency One lands last year.

“That is a big piece of our budget and those amounts add up significantly over 15 or more years of dispute,” said Coun. Douglas Judson.

“It wasn’t good for the long term harmony of our community, and wasn’t good value for taxpayers,” he added.

At the signing of the declaration, Mayor Caul said she acknowledges the harms and mistakes made in the past that damaged the town’s relationship with neighbouring First Nations.

“I dedicate myself to move forward in partnership with local indigenous communities in the spirit of reconciliation and collaboration,” she pledged.

At the declaration signing, Chief Perrault highlighted the historical and spiritual significance of the Agency One Lands to the four First Nations communities who share ownership of it.

The lands were once the site of sacred burial mounds and have been a gathering place for the Anishinaabe people throughout history.

Point Park was also the place where discussions between the Ojibway people and government of Canada occurred before the signing of Treaty #3 at the Northwest Angle.

For generations the elders and chiefs of Couchiching told Chief Perrault to get back their land when the 99-year lease held by Fort Frances expired in 2009.

So when the town’s lawyers were fighting for one-fifth ownership of the property, Chief Perrault made clear it could never happen.

“We don’t have the authority to give away our land,” he remarked. “We’re bound by what our leaders have told us.”

And while the land may never be owned by the Town of Fort Frances, the Agency One Bands said they are willing to share it for the benefit of all.

In addition to working together on economic opportunities the newly formed partnership is aimed at restoring and revitalizing the Agency One parklands to how they were in the late 1900s.

A few decades ago, Point Park was a hub of activity for members of indigenous communities and the town.

“I think back to when I was a kid and all of the gatherings that we use to have right here,” recalled Chief Windigo prior to the signing of the declaration at Point Park. “It was special to be.”

He said when looking at the park now he’s not very proud of it or the other 35 acres of Agency One land along the Trans-Canada Highway.

“To let valuable land like that just grow over–there’s a lot of economic opportunity,” Chief Windigo remarked.

There’s potential to bring more jobs to the district by utilizing parts of the untapped land, he added.

Mayor Caul told the Times she’d like to see a residence constructed for the brand new $16 million Seven Generations Education Institute that was built just east of town.

She said building residential homes on part of the 35 acres to help address the district’s housing shortage, could be another element of the economic development.

“We haven’t got into the process of talking about all the possibilities yet but we’re looking forward to doing that and making some big changes,” Mayor Caul remarked.

She said the signing of the declaration and forming of a partnership is a positive first step in resolving outstanding issues between the town and Agency One First Nations.

Council will continue to meet with the chiefs on a regular basis to discuss their needs and aspirations for the property.

“I hope this encourages other municipalities and communities to improve relationships with their First Nations residents and neighbours,” Mayor Caul remarked.

“Hopefully this will spread and be one way that reconciliation can happen all across Canada.”