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.

Sauble Beach and the challenge of Reconciliation


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.

A lost opportunity in relations with First Nations

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.

Continue reading

An Aboriginal fisherman leaves food for thought

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. Continue reading