I have a clear memory of sitting across from the late Chief James Mason in his office at the Saugeen First Nation Band Office at Chippawa Hill more than 30 years ago. It may not have been the first time, or the last time. I had several such meetings/interviews with him. My beat as an Owen Sound Sun Times reporter at the time included Aboriginal Affairs and the various issues affecting the two First Nations in Ontario’s Grey-Bruce area, the other being the Chippewas of Nawash at Cape Croker.
Sometimes I came away with a story for the paper, sometimes I didn’t. That wasn’t necessarily the point of the interviews, which, in my case, was to keep myself informed. I soon got the impression they served much the same purpose from Chief Mason’s point of view, in the sense that he felt it was important to keep a line of informative communication open with the non-Aboriginal community of this area. I was not so naïve that I didn’t realize there were some issues in the works he chose to keep to himself, but by and large I think we developed a trust relationship. He was always accessible. I would call and ask if he had some time to see me; and he always did.
That one time I asked him about why he was so willing to sit down with me and discuss matters affecting relations between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities that were as often as not likely to appear in the newspaper the next day.
He said he believed if the facts regarding historic grievances First Nation people in this area had with the way they had been treated, and the rights they had lost, were put before local non-Aboriginal people for their information, that they would understand the rightfulness of the Aboriginal position.
It struck me as the epitome of a positive, hopeful attitude that spoke to the best side of human nature and intelligence: ultimately, the truth would win out and all would be well: bridges would be built, and the two communities would move forward with a cooperative attitude based on mutual respect.
I was moved to remember Chief Mason, who died in 1985, after reading an article in the Sun Times this week about Saugeen First Nation Chief Vern Roote’s decision not to seek re-election next month, either as Chief or as a member of band council.
I must say it was my experience in my dealings with Chief Roote that he is cut from much the same cloth. He was always accessible when I called for comment or information, and always good-natured and pleasant. I never asked him about the reasons why, like I did that once with Chief Mason. It seemed obvious enough he shared a similar, positive attitude about information and communication being the constructive basis of a good, co-operative relationship between our two communities.
From the point of view of the Aboriginal community and its leadership, that certainly does not imply any lack of firmness in defence of First Nation positions, regarding land claims, for example.
The late Chippewas of Nawash First Nation Chief Ralph Akiwenzie was also someone I found accessible and anxious to explain the factual and legal basis of local First Nation positions as they related to land claims and fishing rights especially. I did my best to try to keep up to his formidable intellect and detailed store of knowledge related to Supreme Court and other legal precedents then steadily breaking new ground in the re-affirmation of Aboriginal rights.
No one can ever accuse Chief Ralph Akiwenzie of being anything but strong and firm in his passionate and intellectual defence of those rights. He had more than enough reason to wonder about the future of relations between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities of this area, after the shameful reaction of many in the non-Aboriginal community to the 1993 court decision that re-affirmed Aboriginal fishing rights in local waters. But I think he too believed that sooner or later historical facts, reason, and the truth, would prevail over irrational tribalism.
I don’t know the people now in leadership positions in the two local First Nations, or the many running for election for Chief or band council in Saugeen next month.
But I wonder, with the imminent departure of Chief Roote from any involvement, either as chief or councillor, that we may have seen the last of his kind – that from here on in the attitude may be more confrontational and less conciliatory. I fear it may be the end of an era.
I note that since the passing of Chief Akiwenzie in 2011 it has been hard for the Sun Times to get comment from the Chippewas of Nawash leadership.
Several of Chief Roote’s comments in the article this week about his decision not to seek re-election, and get out of Saugeen First Nation politics entirely suggest there has been a lot of stress and divisiveness during this last term of office.
He is right to say the new Saugeen First Nation Chief and Council will have huge issues to deal with over the course of the next two years. They include the First Nation’s long-standing claim to more of Sauble Beach than the half it has possessed for many years.
That is a claim the federal Justice Department ended up supporting, based largely on notes left more than 150 years ago by Crown surveyor Charles Rankin in addition to his actual survey maps. The result was a proposed, mediated settlement, including a proposed co-management agreement involving the First Nation and the Town of South Bruce Peninsula. But that deal ran into a fire-storm of public opposition from many in the largely non-Aboriginal community of Sauble Beach after it was revealed at a public meeting in August, 2014.
That may have been a turning point for any idea a conciliatory approach was ever going to work in connection with that claim.
Meanwhile, the much bigger land-claim lawsuit affecting thousands of hectares of unopened road allowances and other disputed land on the Bruce Peninsula is nearing a trial date. A negotiated settlement of that multi-billion-dollar claim may also be less likely.
Cooler heads could have, and should have prevailed when reasonable discussion based on facts was still possible, rather than closed-minded, ill-informed attitudes with no aim other than resisting any further re-affirmation of Aboriginal rights.
I fear a great opportunity has been lost, and this area will pay a heavy price in bad feeling and greater cultural division as events unfold over the next few years.
A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times in May, 2016.