Sauble Beach: Time to move on to a new opportunity for the sake of the Beach, and Canada

The recent Ontario Superior Court decision confirming the Saugeen First Nation’s rightful ownership of the north section of Sauble Beach is in itself an important milestone in Canada’s path toward meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous people.

Possibly just as significant in the future is the potential for a new, or renewed, era of improvement and development in all aspects of Sauble Beach’s well-being. Above all, that would include protection of the natural environment, and a new vision of future development that honors the longstanding First Nation presence and the principle of reconciliation.

I say ‘potential’ because it all depends on how open to, and how well, the indigenous and non-indigenous communities work together to make it happen. In other words, will there be peace and reconciliation, and cooperation for the overall good of the beach and both communities? The answer to that question will be nothing short of a litmus test for the future of Canada, as well as the future of Sauble Beach. There is far more to be gained by thoughtful cooperation than resentful confrontation.

Such an approach could be applied to the most mundane aspects of Sauble Beach’s future, as well as the most noble. One thing that comes readily to mind is Sauble Beach and the surrounding communities are long overdue for water and sewer services. The Saugeen First Nation and the Town of South Bruce Peninsula may want to put their heads together and join forces as soon as possible to call upon the federal and provincial governments’ help to make that a Sauble Beach development priority.

The court decision has set the stage for an interesting, new dynamic: the interface of an Indigenous community with considerable experience hosting non-indigenous tourists and cottagers on its territory, now sharing with a municipal government the well-being of a major tourist attraction and the mostly non-indigenous, business and residential community built around it. Respectful cooperation is surely the order of this new day.

In all the circumstances, and considering what’s at stake, it’s a wonder the long-standing, Saugeen land-claim didn’t get far more news media coverage and public attention before news of the court decision broke early this month.

The case, based on the Saugeen First Nation’s long-standing claim of ownership, has been before the Ontario court since 1995, but its roots go back 169 years: Treaty 72 was signed under controversial circumstances on October 14, 1854, after a hastily arranged day of intense negotiations engineered by Laurence Oliphant, the newly-appointed Superintendent General of Indian Affairs for Colonial Canada. Oliphant warned the Saugeen Ojibway (Chippewas of Nawash and Saugeen first nations) chiefs that the Crown might not be able to keep squatters out of their Saugeen Peninsula territory as he pressured them to surrender most of it. Yet, later the same day, after the treaty was signed, Oliphant posted a public notice and ordered the Owen Sound-based sheriff to keep squatters out of the newly-acquired Crown territory. The peninsula was soon renamed the Bruce Peninsula after a colonial official who had never been there. The Saugeen Ojibway were to be left with a few relatively small reserves, including the Saugeen First Nation reserve on the Lake Huron shoreline from the Saugeen River to Chief’s Point at the mouth of the Sauble River north of Sauble Beach.

Prior to the recent court decision, the Saugeen First Nation had long claimed the survey done two years after the treaty was signed did not correspond to the intent of the treaty. Ontario Superior Court Judge Susan Vella agreed in her finding that the honor of the Crown had been brought into disrepute by the mistaken survey, and the Saugeen First Nation was the rightful owner of that north portion of the beach that has been under local municipal jurisdiction for many years. Meanwhile, the southern portion of the beach, south of the iconic Sauble Beach signpost, has been Saugeen territory since after Treaty 72 was signed and surveyed.

There was an opportunity for a negotiated settlement of the Saugeen First Nation claim of ownership of the north section of the beach in the summer of 2014. With the support of Canada’s federal government Justice Department, and if its ownership of the disputed section of the beach was recognized, the First Nation was prepared to enter into a co-management agreement with 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 when it was presented and discussed at a public meeting in August, 2014; and as a result the court case continued unresolved for another almost nine years.

That was an opportunity lost; but another, similar opportunity presents itself now.

South Bruce Peninsula council has chosen to file an appeal of the April 3 court decision; but it appears to be focused on clarification of the western boundary between the newly confirmed Saugeen territory and the municipality, and the status of private property on or near the north section of the beach. Fair enough; but it’s time to move on to that new opportunity.