Treaties and Land Claims

Late last fall the Algonquins of Ontario and the governments of Ontario and Canada signed an Agreement-in-Principle (AIP) to settle a centuries-old land claim between Algonquin people in Ontario and the Crown.

This agreement was in negotiations since the mid-1980s, which is when the land claim was first filed.

Treaties and land claims in Canada have been described as everything from racist and genocidal, to unfairly advantageous, to desirable, depending on when, where, what happened afterward and who’s doing the talking.

It’s a long history.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 was ratified when the British Crown presented two wampum belts — The British and Western Great Lakes Covenant Chain Confederacy Wampum Belt and The Twenty Four Nations Wampum Belt — to Indigenous Nations of Upper and Lower Canada, who reciprocated with The Two Row Wampum Belt.

This exchange, says Lynn Gehl, Ph.D. — a writer and Indigenous human rights activist — codified a relationship between equal allies, and represented the negotiating process meant to ensure Indigenous Nations’ equal share of resources and bounty of the land. It also codified a nation-to-nation relationship rooted in the philosophy and practice of non-interference mediated by peace, friendship and respect.

“Many Canadians are unaware,” said Gehl, “…that these wampum belts are also Canada’s first constitutional documents.”

Later came treaties on paper, and in 1877 Treaty Seven was signed by Chief Crowfoot, with other important Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan, Sarcee and Stoney signatories.

Vast prairies and foothills were ceded to the Crown—for payment and as protection against the nearby Cree and Métis.

Rights to hunting, fishing and gathering in that territory were retained. The railway, however, brought settlers and soon most game (including buffalo) and wild food essential to survival disappeared. Now Treaty Seven lands have been effectively reduced to a handful of reserves.

Similarly, other treaties were chipped away over time.

Rights to hunt, fish, harvest food, and live in their own territories were diminished, with peoples gradually being squeezed into the reserve system.

Until 1951, reserve dwellers needed permission to travel off reserve and were only given voting rights in 1960. They were named wards of the state; meaning the federal government could make all decisions for them, resulting in many horrific abuses.

In exchange they received one-time payouts (often of low value), guarantees of being cared for (usually poorly) and concessions such as not paying certain taxes.

Treaties were broken in shocking ways, including by ‘Indian Agents’ who sold reserve land and pocketed the cash. 

Governments expropriated additional parcels and lands were bitten back. In unceded territories, the disrespect was similar or worse.

In 1990 in Oka, Que., Mohawks of Kanesatake protested planned housing and golf course development. Mohawks had earlier filed claim on this land, stating it held a burial ground and sacred grove.

Other communities, including Kahnawake, soon blockaded major roads. The conflict escalated. First Nations in Canada and the U.S. showed their solidarity. The Sûreté du Quebec, and then the RCMP, tried to contain the eleven-week standoff during which  Corporal Marcel Lemay was killed. The Mohawk Warrior Society gained prominence.

Then in 1995 in Ipperwash, Ont., a dispute simmering since 1942 concerning an expropriated burial ground caused the Ipperwash crisis. Anishinabek protestor Dudley George was shot by OPP removing unarmed protestors from a park.

These and other disputes stimulated governments to settle land claims.

Now the federal and Ontario governments have negotiated Algonquin land settlements in Ontario, but reactions to the recently ratified AIP range from active support to outrage.

The Algonquins of Ontario (AOO) website,, states: “The signing of the AIP is a key step toward a final agreement that will clarify the rights of all concerned and open up new economic development opportunities for the benefit of the Algonquins of Ontario and their neighbours in the settlement area in eastern Ontario.”

It also notes: “The AIP is not a legally binding document. Rather, it paves the way for continued negotiations toward a final agreement that will define the ongoing rights of the Algonquins of Ontario to lands and natural resources within the land claim territory. If achieved, the final agreement will take the form of a modern-day treaty with Aboriginal and treaty rights protected under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.”

The AOO include the Antoine, Bancroft, Bonnechere, Greater Golden Lake, Mattawa/North Bay, Ottawa, Pikwakanagan, ShabotObaadjiwan, Snimikobi, and Whitney and Area Algonquin Collectives who are represented by elected Algonquin negotiation representatives.

Opposition is based on many factors, including the choosing of the 16 members of the AOO negotiating team; the use of genealogical research to decide who can vote on the agreement – including leaving out many non-status Algonquins; the proportionally small sum of $300 million CDN in exchange for high-value land (including the Rockcliffe Air Base); perceived unfair distribution (most of the 117,500 acres to be traded are near Pikwàkanagàn); and splitting up Ontario and Quebec Algonquins.

Paul Lamothe, Chief of the Algonquins of Ottawa, was originally at the table but said one reason he left the negotiating team was the non-disclosure agreement.

“The minister had said the process would be open and transparent. Those who are not at the table should at least be able to know what is going on.”

Lamothe also disapproves of amounts paid for an expensive office and to legal counsel, funds which he said comes out of the too-low $300 million.

Grant Tysick, Chief of the Kinouncheparin, who are a group of families located near Renfrew, similarly oppose the deal, adding that proper consultation has not taken place. In fact, the Kinouncheparin launched a lawsuit against the AOO, claiming the AOO does not represent them or other non-reserve or non-status Algonquin persons. Said Tysick in 2013 when the first draft of the AIP came out: “We don’t need a treaty with Canada, we need a relationship.”

However, the principle negotiator and legal counsel for the AOO, Robert Potts, stands firm. Potts explained the process of choosing registered voters as ’very rigorous.’

He pointed out that it automatically includes people of the Pikwakanagan reserve, but also includes other persons who can prove a direct lineal connection to Algonquin ancestors on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River, a cultural connection with a recognized Algonquin community and a life event within the community – which still excludes many people who feel strongly about heritage and want to have a say in the broader community’s future.

But Potts believes the AIP is good for all parties.

“This is a historic exercise,” he said. He describes the agreement, if finalized and signed, as a modern treaty. “We listened to all comments, from Algonquin and non-Algonquin. This has not been done in treaty negotiations before."

Gehl disagreed with calling the agreement and its negotiations a treaty: “What Canada calls the ’modern treaty process’ is really a land-claims process that forces Indigenous nations to extinguish, relinquish and define in very narrow terms their Indigenous land and resource rights,” she said. “The treaty process is about nations sharing land and resources in a fair and equitable way, where as a result each nation is able to build institutions that are meaningful to them, and which allow their citizens to live a good life.”

Is that possible after all this time?

“The area in question has 1.2 million people,” said Potts. “This area is extremely complicated. There are over 80 municipalities and substantial population, with businesses, cottage associations, rights of way, and so on.”

He said the AOO is trying to be sensitive.

“They are recognizing the world we’re living in now. It was agreed that there would be no displacement or expropriation of private property. Certain places, such as Parliament Hill, would not be included. That leaves a limited land base.”

Will this Agreement in Principle, negotiated over decades, drafted several years ago and ratified last year provide that?

The claim process is expected to last for several more years.

“There are over 160 items in the AIP,” Potts said. “We’re now revisiting many of those and fine tuning. As we move to finalize items, some issues still have to be agreed on.”

Whether it is finally accepted or not, it may well be another case of too little, too late. The Algonquin people first requested a treaty in 1772 n