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onw COLUMNISTS

Idle No More, Ontario


By Peter Russell

When First Nations meet with Prime Minister Harper this week to discuss treaty and economic development issues in northern Ontario, one party, a crucial party, will be missing – the Government of Ontario.

Chief Teresa Spence’s Attawapiskat band is one of 41 First Nations that signed Treaty 9 with the Crown beginning in 1905 with the final adhesions in northwest Ontario in 1929 and 1930.

The "Crown” these Cree and Ojibwa communities made treaty with was a federalized crown that included the Government of Ontario as well as the Government of Canada.

This was the first – and the last – of the numbered treaties to which a province was a party.

Ontario’s being a party to Treaty 9 was a consequence of a huge win for the province in the courts.

In the 1880s, Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat and Sir John A. Macdonald had gone to court to settle their dispute over which Crown, the federal or provincial, took custody of land secured through treaties with Indians.

Mowat won the St. Catharine's Milling & Lumber case hands down. As a result all the lands “surrendered” in treaties by Indians to the Crown would fall entirely under the jurisdiction of the province.

The province now had a huge stake in Treaty 9, which aimed at a land settlement with all the native peoples whose traditional lands covered most of northern Ontario.

In 1894, the governments of Ontario and Canada signed an agreement that Ontario’s concurrence would be required for any future treaties with Indians in Ontario. Ontario appointed D. George MacMartin to join Duncan Campbell Scott and Samuel Stewart as commissioners for Treaty 9.

When the treaty commissioners set out by canoe to “negotiate” Treaty 9 with the Cree and Ojibwa communities along the lakes and rivers that drain into James Bay and Hudson Bay, they carried with them a typed copy of Treaty 9 and were instructed that they could not change a word in it.

Some negotiation!

By any standard the treaty process was unfair – permeated by deceit and miscommunication.

The Treaty Commissioners made no effort to have the full treaty orally explained by interpreters. So the words “the said Indians do hereby cede, release, surrender and yield up to the Government of the Dominion of Canada, for His Majesty the King and his successors, all their rights, titles and privileges whatsoever, to the lands included in the following limits …” were never put squarely to the Aboriginal signatories.

The treaty party was always very upbeat about the benefits the Indians would derive from signing Treaty 9.

Promises were made about improvements in their living conditions, including health and education, and they were assured that they would continue their traditional economic pursuits of hunting, trapping and fishing in the lands and on the waters off their reserves.

But the Indians were never told that in the text of the treaty this access to their lands would not apply to “such tracts as may be required or taken up from time to time for settlement, mining, lumbering, trading or other purposes.”

That was a hole big enough to drive a fleet of Mack trucks through.

That hole in the written text of the treaty has meant that the Cree and Ojibwa of Northern Ontario have not only had their traditional economic resources cut back, but they have also been excluded from the industrial development of the 250,000 square miles of rich resource lands which the Province of Ontario secured through Treaty 9.

It is too late to go back and redo Treaty 9.

But is not too late to return to the promises made to the Cree and Ojibwa who signed that treaty.

In today’s context that means ensuring that their living conditions, their access to good education and health services, meet the standards of all Ontario communities.

Above all, it means making the First Nations of northern Ontario full partners in their region’s economic development.

Only by doing so, will they be able to gain the economic self-sufficiency essential for true self-government.

Mr. Harper’s government can support that happening, but only the Ontario government can make it happen.

So – Idle No More, Ontario!      


Peter Russell is one of Canada's leading constitutional experts, advisor to Governors-General and Professor-Emeritus in Political Science at the University of Toronto. 

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : January 08, 2013

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