Sauble Beach is a major summer tourist destination in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. It stretches for 11 kilometres along the Lake Huron’s eastern shoreline south of the Sauble River.
The tourism economy has stimulated the growth of a resort and year-round community of the same name bigger than some towns in the area of southern Ontario often referred to as Grey-Bruce, after the two counties it includes. Much of the community of Sauble Beach is in the Town of South Bruce Peninsula.
Municipal officials are planning to excavate a portion of sand dunes and expand the parking area along the west side of Lakeshore Blvd. beside and running parallel to the beach. They regard it as a relatively small, road improvement project aimed at making the parking situation safer.
They might have foreseen the extent to which the project would raise concerns from environmentalist. So, for that reason alone, municipal staff and council appear to have fallen into a trap of their own making. They should have known better by now. This week the project was put on hold likely until the spring after an environmental law group threatened to get a court injunction if the project went ahead.
But — and not to downplay the importance of mother nature — there is an even bigger underlying issue: who owns, or in the parlance of governance, who really has jurisdiction over the north section of the beach still being managed by the municipality?
That issue was deserving of more public attention because it is reaching a critical legal point in a lengthy court action.
Indeed, the Saugeen First Nation, which has long included the southern half of Sauble Beach in its territory, regards the outcome as a foregone conclusion: “The lands in question are part of Saugeen First Nation, and while that is not accepted by the South Bruce Peninsula Town Council, it is simply fact. Saugeen and the Government of Canada agree on this and will be taking the Town to court to settle,” Saugeen First Nation Chief Lester Anoquot said this week in a joint public statement issued by the Saugeen First Nation and the Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON) Environment Office.
Canada is going through an ongoing period of ‘truth and reconciliation’ with First Nation, or Aboriginal, people who live within the country’s boundaries. Between 2004 and 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in connection with a series of cases that the Crown had a ‘Duty to Consult’ where First Nation constitutional or treaty rights stood to be adversely affected.
Canada is a sovereign country, but still technically a constitutional monarchy under the British Crown. Senior Canadian national and provincial governments are regarded as Crown representatives with a responsibility to uphold the ‘honour’ of the Crown regarding the Duty to Consult.
The details of delegating that legal requirement to municipalities and other ‘third parties’ is still a work in progress, though some local municipalities have already implemented such a policy, including Bruce County, which includes the Town of South Bruce Peninsula.
The Saugeen First Nation has claimed ownership of the north half of Sauble Beach for 30 years. The claim maintains the north-south boundary line of the First Nation reserve was mistakenly drawn after the land was surveyed following the signing of the 1854 treaty involving the Bruce, formerly Saugeen, Peninsula. At the time, Canada was still a British colony.
In August, 2014, Canadian government officials told a packed public meeting at the Sauble Beach Community Centre that the federal government supported the Saugeen claim. They proposed a negotiated settlement that would give the First Nation ownership of the entire beach, but with a co-management agreement with the non-Aboriginal community. That elicited an angry, defiant response from the mostly non-Aboriginal crowd and the idea was soon abandoned. The incumbent town council took a lot of public heat in Sauble Beach and was voted out of office in that fall’s municipal election.
In August, 2019 the Saugeen First Nation brought a motion before Ontario Superior Court for a ‘summary judgement’ regarding its Sauble Beach claim.
Motions for summary judgment are brought when one side believes its case is overwhelmingly strong. But if it fails, a regular trial process, as advocated for by South Bruce Peninsula since 2015, would still be left to resolve the dispute.
The First Nation is supported in that action by the Canadian government. The Town of South Bruce Peninsula opposes the motion, and is supported by the Ontario government, South Bruce Peninsula mayor, Janice Jackson, said in an interview.
SON and the Saugeen First Nation strongly maintain it should be consulted by the Town regarding the Lakeshore Blvd. project before any work is done. Municipal and Saugeen representatives met on-site in late November and early December after the First Nation raised concerns about the lack of consultation and offered a “reasonable consultation process” proposal, the First Nation and SON said in the Dec. 8, 2020 joint statement.
That followed the results of a special town council meeting Dec. 7 when council voted to carry on with the project, without consulting with the First Nation. In an interview the town’s mayor, Janice Jackson, said there was no informal agreement with the First Nation for consultation before that vote. “It was always going to be up to council,” she said.
On her Mayor’s Facebook page following the council decision, Jackson spoke of the town’s actions to gain approval from other agencies before there was any contact with the First Nation: “After lengthy collaboration with the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) and the Grey Sauble Conservation Authority, we were given the green light to move forward. We didn’t expect the Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON) to demand consultation, as we have never previously consulted them on roadside work on Lakeshore Boulevard,” Jackson said in the Dec. 8 Facebook post.
Jackson said the First Nations have “cited the land claim as the reason we must consult.” She added, “our legal team strongly advised us to carry on with this project as we have no legal obligation to consult and that doing so would be precedent-setting and potentially cause harm to our land claim litigation.”
“We proposed a reasonable process to work towards consent on this project,” Chief Anoquot said, “and, without even reviewing the consultation plan, the town has unanimously decided to go ahead without our consent, without any consultation and without an opportunity for our staff to analyze the information and make informed recommendations that would resolve the issues at hand (parking and safety) and minimize to the greatest extend possible, any impacts to the environment,”
In all the circumstances, including long past, and recent history, the town should have consulted with its First Nation neighbor in a respectful, good-neighbour manner. It could have been done ‘without prejudice,’ a legal term that could have prevented the consultation from being used against the town in the ongoing litigation.
I am confident the Saugeen First Nation leadership would have honored the spirit of such wording, no matter what the lawyers might say.
And where was the Ontario government regarding its obligation to honor its Duty to Consult, and/or advise the municipality?
The Lakeshore Road Blvd project is not just small-scale, road-maintenance, not when such important, underlying issues affecting the peaceful future of the country are at stake. Every possible gesture of reconciliation is precious.
Imagine the difference it could make.