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.

Parks Canada says national park name changes about reconciliation

The decisions to start referring to the Bruce Peninsula as the Saugeen Peninsula, and to soon begin formal public consultations possibly leading to a name change for the Bruce Peninsula National Park itself, are not connected to a judgement coming soon in the Saugeen Ojibway land-claim lawsuit, Parks Canada says.

Instead, the name changes are Parks Canada’s ongoing effort to support the reconciliation of Canada and the Indigenous people who live within the country’s boundaries. “The identities and cultures of Indigenous peoples are rooted in land, and honouring connections to place is an important part of Parks Canada’s commitment to reconciliation,” the agency says in a statement responding to written questions from this writer.

“‘Wedokododwin’ (the Anishinaabe word for ‘working together’) begins with small steps. In this spirit Parks Canada team members use the Anishinaabe word ‘Saugeen’ referring to the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula informally and regularly,” the statement says. “A recent letter to partners signaled the intent to extend the use of this language more broadly,” it adds.

That is a reference to an email recently sent to operational ‘partners’ by John Haselmeyer, superintendent of the Bruce Peninsula and Fathom Five Marine National Parks on the upper peninsula in the Tobermory area.

“Going forward, we will be changing how we refer to the Bruce Peninsula.  Instead, we will be referring to the peninsula where our two parks are located as the ‘Saugeen Peninsula,’” Haselmeyer said in the email, a copy of which was obtained by this writer. The email also referred to a public consultation process leading to a possible name change for the Bruce Peninsula National Park itself.

When contacted last week for further clarification and comment, Haselmeyer said he was not authorized to speak to the media and requested written questions. Several questions were submitted last week. Parks Canada’s statement and written answers were received a week later.

In the public interest an initial article was written, based on the contents of the email. The article, published last week under the heading, ‘Name change in the works for national park,’ also noted the coincidental timing of the national park-related name changes, and the current status of the long-standing Saugeen Ojibway Nation’s (SON) land-claim lawsuit. A judgement is imminent, following the conclusion of a trial last fall.

In response to a written question about a possible connection to the SON lawsuit and its possible outcome, Parks Canada offered the following answer:

“How Parks Canada refers to the broader peninsula area, and the consultation that will take place to engage Canadians in a discussion about the related name of the park itself are not connected to any litigation.”

The SON lawsuit was filed in Ontario Superior Court of Justice in 1994. The trial began in April, 2019, and ended with final arguments last fall. It is now up to the presiding judge, Justice Wendy Matheson, to make a ruling for or against SON’s claims.

The case centers around Treaty 72, signed in 1854, resulting in the two First Nations that now comprise SON surrendering most of what remained of their territory on the Saugeen Peninsula, as it was then named. SON claims the Crown failed, through the actions of its representatives, in its fiduciary (trust) duty to protect the interests of the First Nations, as promised in an earlier 1836 treaty.

If the judgement is in favor of SON, the next phase of the case in court would be a determination of the amount and method of compensation owed to the two First Nations, the Chippewas of Nawash and the Saugeen First Nation.

The Parks Canada statement has more to say about the possible renaming of the Bruce Peninsula National Park: “There is strong recognition of the ‘Bruce Peninsula’ park’s existing name, including public interest among residents, the business community, and visitors to the region. Parks Canada will undertake public consultations before making any formal changes to its name.”

The statement adds upcoming management planning for the two national parks on the upper peninsula will include formal public consultations, “and there will be many opportunities for Canadians, partners, and stakeholders to provide feedback and guidance over the coming months. This process will include important considerations around names and languages.”

 One of the written questions submitted to Parks Canada asked for a definition of ‘partners’ and examples of who they are. Parks Canada’s answer follows, slightly edited:

“The Agency works with partners in local communities to develop new and sustainable ways to manage visitation in popular areas, ecological protection, and regional tourism issues. In this setting, partners refer to the businesses, groups or organizations that Parks Canada works with in the region, examples of which will be the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, government organizations such as the Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula, Bruce County Tourism, or RTO7; local tourism providers such as tour boat and dive boat companies; and non-government organizations such as the Bruce Peninsula Biosphere Association or the St-Edmund’s Property Owners Association. Many of these have a seat on the park’s Park Advisory Committee.

Another written question asked why a notice about the name changes wasn’t sent to the general public, considering the process has effectively already begun. Following is Parks Canada’s answer:

“A new management plan for Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park is in development. The plan guides management decisions and actions for the parks, and serves as a key accountability document to the public. The process to meet legal and policy obligations while reflecting the interests and input of Canadians unfolds over many months and creates several opportunities for Canadians, partners and stakeholders to provide feedback, guidance and to weigh in on proposed direction, themes and changes. Strategic in nature, management plans outline a long-term vision and include measurable objectives and targets to achieve results.

“This public planning and consultation about the future of the park is also a great time to speak about the name of the park itself. Parks Canada is launching the public engagement process in the near future. Parks Canada hopes that many Canadians will choose to become involved and provide their thoughts about the future of the park.”

The reader can decide if that answers the question.