First Nation land claims will have huge impact

I suppose the day will come that I will have to hang up my journalistic spurs for good, in which case I hope I’m around long enough to see some long-standing big stories finally played out one way or another, for the better.

But in the meantime I attended the public meeting earlier this week about the proposed settlement agreement in connection with the Saugeen First Nation’s lawsuit/claim to much of the rest of Sauble Beach.

I was not the least bit surprised to see the parking lot full to overflowing when I arrived. With the Sauble Beach Community Centre at its 500-person capacity limit, and people being turned away shortly before the meeting began, I was lucky, and much relieved, to get in.

I had gone as much to be a witness to history, as for the sake of immersing myself in the big story yet again.  And make no mistake, based on my more than 30 years experience, this is right up there with the Niagara Escarpment Plan controversy in the late 1970s, the Bruce Peninsula National Park debate in the early 1980s, and the terrible reaction in the non-Aboriginal community to the 1993 court decision that affirmed the local Aboriginal “priority” right to the fishery in area waters.

And this, a claim and proposed settlement affecting the Grey-Bruce area’s major summer beach/tourism resource, may be something like a dress rehearsal for an even bigger story to come. That’s the Saugeen Ojibway lawsuit involving road allowances and other land on the entire Bruce Peninsula.

Toward the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Gary Penner, a federal government lawyer, said in answer to a question from the audience that multi-billion-dollar lawsuit/claim filed in 1994 is still before the courts. But unlike the Sauble Beach case there is no mediation process underway, and no sign of one to come. He said the case is likely to go to trial in “four or five years.”

The Saugeen Ojibway includes the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation north of Wiarton, and the Chippewas of Saugeen First Nation near Southampton. The Saugeen First Nation alone filed its Sauble Beach claim in 1995.

There is clearly a lot at stake. Sauble Beach is one of Ontario’s main summer beach resorts, with businesses large and small dependent on the many thousands of visitors and cottagers it attracts every summer. It also now ranks as one of the largest year-round, residential communities in Bruce County. To say the viability of the community depends on public access to the beach is to put it mildly.

So it was certainly not necessarily good news for many people in the capacity crowd to hear Penner outline the reasons why the federal Justice department has “come to the conclusion that the Saugeen First Nation was correct” in its claim, as he put it.

“The compelling evidence” in favour of the Saugeen claim displayed on a screen in the meeting hall darkened for the purpose included excerpts from Treaty 72, signed in 1854 by representatives of the Saugeen Ojibway and the Crown.

Charles Rankin’s signature as one of the witnesses to the proceedings was especially important, Jenner explained. As the surveyor Rankin would have known the intent of the treaty in the placement of the northern boundary of the Saugeen First Nation reserve.  Rankin’s own survey notes and his notation on a map of the Sauble River/Beach area from the time place the boundary in the vicinity of 6th Street, instead of Main Street and the now-famous Sauble Beach signpost.

That’s important evidence because the Supreme Court has ruled the intent of the treaty at the time of signing is crucial, Jenner noted.

South Bruce Peninsula’s lawyer, Greg Stewart, explained that without a mediated settlement public access to the beach would be entirely up to the Saugeen First Nation if the case goes to trial and it wins. But the proposed mediated settlement envisions the beach being co-managed by a Joint Board of Management including Saugeen and South Bruce Peninsula representatives. Such things as parking on the beach would be under the control of that board, a point that raised laughter in the crowd when Stewart made it. The Saugeen First Nation currently allows paid parking on the half of the beach it now owns and manages.

Several people who came to a mike at the back of the hall questioned why the issue was being “rushed.” Stewart’s explanation, that history has shown such mediated settlement’s have “fallen apart” when a municipal election is on the way, was also greeted with laughter.

One can never judge the overall mood of such a meeting with certainty: hotheads and objectors will often garner too much attention, while cooler heads sit quietly.

All things considered the proposed settlement appears to make a lot of sense. It’s probably the best deal the Sauble Beach business, cottage and residential community can look forward to getting, as well as the Town of South Bruce Peninsula municipal government.

But I was left with the feeling it’s in for a rough ride and will likely not survive its encounter with ill-informed public opinion in Sauble Beach. And that’s unfortunate, given what’s at stake and the fact the Saugeen First Nation has such a good case.

Nor is it good preparation for the future. The Saugeen Ojibway claim on the Bruce Peninsula is also well-founded. A mediated settlement there, if one is still possible, would also be a very good idea before it goes to trial. Trust me. You don’t really want to go there.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2014

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