A few weeks ago a well-used pick-up truck pulled into our driveway on the Bruce Peninsula. A man who looked like he might be in his mid-30s got out and said he and his fisherman partner had some freshly caught Georgian Bay fish for sale and did I want some.
They were from nearby Cape Croker, home of the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, and they were doing what people from there have been doing for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, trading and bartering the fish they catch, in this case nowadays, for cash. That traditional and vital use of the fishery around what used to be called the Saugeen Peninsula, for food and trade, was recognized and re-affirmed by an Ontario court decision in 1993, that ruled First Nation people in this area were entitled to “priority” use of the fishery in local waters.
At the time most large-scale commercial fishers in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay waters in this area were non-Aboriginal. That court decision began a process of change, leading to the predominantly First Nation fishery that exists today. But the initial reaction of many people in the local non-Aboriginal community was angry and confrontational.
For a while downtown Owen Sound was not a friendly or even safe place for First Nation people to be. One night two young men from Cape Croker were attacked with knives by a group of thugs and badly injured.
The man I was talking to about buying fish that day in our driveway had a scar down one side of his face. Time had healed what had obviously been a deep wound. I had a feeling right away I was talking to one of the First Nation men who had been attacked that night 21 years ago. I was right.
Left with that scar for the rest of his life, the result of a vicious, racist attack, it would have been understandable if he was still also carrying a lot of anger and resentment toward his attackers, and perhaps even the non-Aboriginal community from which they came. But on the contrary, he had moved on. Life, he told me in so many words, was too precious and good to waste on that kind of spirit-destroying thing.
I thought about him and that morning again, and those tragic events two decades ago, as I followed the current controversy that has suddenly surfaced at Sauble Beach, in connection with the Saugeen First Nation’s claim to more of that hugely popular local tourism resource.
The man who stood up at a meeting of 500 people at the Sauble Beach Community Centre last Saturday and expressed a note of caution about jumping to conclusions was right on. Like the fishery issue of the 1990s, this too has the potential to get ugly
Craig Gammie, the “keynote speaker” at the meeting organized by the Friends of Sauble Beach, spoke of having “proof” after doing a lot of his own research that the Saugeen First Nation is entitled to nothing more than the part of the beach it already has, ending at Main Street. “The evidence is compelling, it’s our beach,” Gammie said, as reported in The Sun Times.
“That leaves us with a problem. And that problem is, in spite of this very compelling evidence, it appears that our mayor wants to give the beach away,” he added.
South Bruce Peninsula Mayor John Close, who was not at the meeting, later denied doing any such thing. He said the public will be consulted before council decides what action to take following the confidential mediation talks currently underway in connection with the First Nation claim.
George Heigenhauser, a resident of the former Albemarle Township, said people should be cautious about believing everything that was presented at the meeting. “None of us are lawyers and none of us are surveyors,” he said, calling for a respectful attitude toward the Saugeen claim.
I would add that everyone, including Gammie, should be careful about using language that could be potentially inflammatory, like “giving the beach away,” when the context of the discussion is an Aboriginal land claim.
Here’s a warning about the need to develop a habit of dealing with First Nation land claims in a reasonable, well-informed, respectful way: there’s more and much bigger claims to come.
Together the Chippewas of Nawash and Saugeen First Nation are the Saugeen Ojibway. In June, 1994 the Saugeen Ojibway filed a land claim lawsuit involving the entire Bruce Peninsula. It is still before the courts. It names the federal and Ontario government, and local municipalities as defendants. The case is still in the “discovery” phase. But a source close to the case told me the issues have been narrowed down to a few hundred from several thousand, and a trial date could soon be set.
At issue is the treaty signed in 1854 that required the Crown to sell land on the peninsula on behalf of the two First Nations. The multi-billion-dollar claim involves thousands of hectares (55,000 acres) of land on the peninsula, including road allowances, lake beds, and land that was never sold that remains in possession of the Crown. When the lawsuit was filed in June of 1994 the Saugeen Ojibway said land that was properly sold after the treaty was signed and the money put in First Nation trust funds is not in dispute.
When the day comes that this huge claim finally gets its day in court, and/or a settlement is reached, those of us who live on the Bruce Peninsula in particular will need all the understanding, good behavior and choice of words we can muster.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2014.