‘Canada has a lot of unpaid bills’: $10 billion settlement reached in landmark First Nations treaty annuities case

It took more than a decade of litigation, but 21 Anishinaabe communities along the north shore of Lake Huron in Ontario will finally have access to a fair share of the wealth generated on their lands over the past 173 years.

The Robinson-Huron Treaty signed in 1850 promised its Aboriginal beneficiaries annual payments in return for the right to use their lands.

A clause in the treaty explicitly tied the value of annual payments to resource revenues.

Northeastern Ontario’s mining, lumber and fishing industries have generated billions of dollars in profits over the past two centuries, but annual payments to First Nations were capped at $4 per person in 1874 and have not increased since.

In 2018, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled that the Crown had an obligation to increase the annual payments to the beneficiaries of the Robinson-Huron treaty.

Canada, Ontario and these First Nations communities have been negotiating out of court since January.

WATCH | Settlement Announcement Opening Ceremony:

Ceremony opens announcement of $10 billion settlement in Robinson-Huron Treaty territory

The announcement of an agreement in principle between Ontario, Canada and the 21 Anishinaabe First Nations living in Robinson-Huron Treaty territory to compensate for past unpaid annuities began with a ceremony, much like 173 years ago when the Robinson-Huron treaty was first signed.

The three parties announced a proposed $10 billion settlement to compensate past unpaid annuities at a Sudbury news conference on Saturday.

The federal government will pay half of this amount, and the other half will be assumed by the provincial government.

Renew the conventional relationship

Batchewana First Nation Chief Dean Sayers says the proposed settlement means the Crown and Indigenous communities in Robinson-Huron Treaty Territory are moving together on the path to reconciliation.

“It’s just a first step,” he said. “The proposed agreement only deals with past annuities.”

Negotiations to review the terms of the upcoming annual payments are ongoing, but Sayers says the proposed settlement brings hope for the future of the treaty relationship.

“It is a symbol of the commitment to respect and uphold treaty rights,” he said.

A man sitting in a chair, smiling.
Robinson-Huron Treaty Litigation Fund President Mike Restoule of Nipissing First Nation said he feels “ecstatic” about reaching a proposed settlement with the provincial and federal governments. (Aya Dufour/Radio-Canada)

For Duke Peltier, secretary-treasurer of the Robinson-Huron Treaty Litigation Fund, the proposed settlement makes a lot of sense.

“Our communities have suffered economic, social and political hardship because the Crown breached the treaty,” he said.

“Compensation for this settlement will ensure a stronger and brighter future for our nations,” Peltier said.

Communities will be consulted on how to distribute the settlement money

Peltier says members of the Robinson-Huron First Nation community have “many burning questions” about what this settlement entails.

He asks people to be patient.

“We need to have discussions in our communities,” Peltier said.

He adds that there will be consultations in all the communities in the coming months.

These conversations will guide “the development of policies and procedures so that the compensation fund can be distributed evenly across communities,” Peltier said.

A report with recommendations will be prepared by Anishnaabe Judge Harry S. LaForme within the next six to eight months.

Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod says part of the compensation will be used to fund community development projects.

He adds that there is also an “individual pension component”.

“First Nations will distribute this money to individuals. This amount has not yet been determined,” he said.

As for the federal and provincial governments, they must go through internal approval processes before the proposed regulations can be finalized.

‘Even a library book would cost a small fortune if it took 173 years to pay late fees’: minister

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller says the proposed settlement does not affect any particular piece of land in Canada.

“It’s about the whole relationship that this country was built on,” he said.

Miller hopes this compensation will “repair a historical wrong”.

He adds that the public needs to be educated on this issue. “It’s not taught in schools,” he said.

“People are going to have opinions on this, but people need to understand that this is about Canada and Ontario paying bills that are long overdue.”

“Even a library book would cost a small fortune if it took 173 years to pay late fees,” Miller said.

He added that “Canada has a lot of unpaid bills,” but work is underway to expedite compensation claims across the country.

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