ackby Tim Kitz


he Leveller acknowledges that Ottawa is on unceded Algonquin territory.” It’s on our second page and something of a catchphrase at local leftist gatherings. Yet decades of negotiations have been working to make this ceded territory. Between Feb. 29 and March 7, eligible Algonquin voters will cast ballots to ratify an “Agreement in Principle” with the governments of Ontario and Canada.

Who are the Algonquins?

The Algonquins are the Indigenous people of the Kitchissippi (a.k.a Ottawa River) watershed. This 148,000 square kilometres area includes most of present-day eastern Ontario and western Québec. It stretches roughly from North Bay in the west to Hawkesbury in the east, and from Kingston in the south to Val D’or in the north. It also includes Ottawa, the Parliament Buildings, and the Supreme Court of Canada.

What is the history of the Ontario Algonquin Land Claim?

The Algonquins were party to several “peace and friendship” treaties with colonial powers (mainly the British and the French), such as the 1764 Treaty at Niagara. As settlers encroached on their territory and threatened their way of life, Algonquin communities petitioned settler governments dozens of times, seeking treaties that would reserve land for their exclusive use and ensure their survival.

In 1864, one community on the shores of Golden Lake was granted a tiny 1,500-acre parcel. Other Algonquins were told to join this Golden Lake reserve.

In 1976, the Golden Lake Algonquins challenged the Crown’s expropriation of reserve land for a railroad. Research they conducted in support of this resistance proved that the Algonquins had never ceded their territory and in 1983, they submitted a statement of claim to the government. Negotiations with the governments of Ontario and Canada for this land claim began in 1991. It involved a territory of 36,000 square kilometers, most of eastern Ontario. A Preliminary Draft of the Agreement in Principle (AIP) was released in 2012, leading to the current 2015 AIP, which is up for ratification.

What is the Agreement in Principle?

The Kitchissippi watershed

A product of years of negotiation, the AIP is a document explaining the main elements that would go into settling the Algonquin land claim. It provides a framework for negotiating the final agreement but is not legally binding. The final agreement will require another ratification vote by enrolled voters in the Algonquins of Ontario.

Who are the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO)?

The AOO is a legal entity negotiating on behalf of the Algonquins for their traditional territory in Ontario. It involves representatives from Pikwàkanagàn (formerly the Golden Lake reserve), and nine non-status communities. To be enrolled as voting members of these non-status communities, individuals have to prove descent from historically-attested Algonquins and meet a certain blood-quantum formula.

Why are enrolled Algonquin voters not all status “Indians”?

Within Ontario, only members of the Golden Lake reserve (now known as Pikwàkanagàn) are recognized as status “Indians” under the terms of the 1876 Indian Act. Absent treaties, the settlement was so quick and thorough in Ontario that other Algonquin communities were over-run. Few individuals relocated to Golden Lake. As Lynn Gehl, a non-status Algonquin activist and writer, told the Leveller, in the face of pervasive racism and colonialism, “a lot of Algonquin people had to go underground to survive. Indigenous grandparents and grandmothers had to hide who they were to even own land.”

This means that today, non-status Algonquins significantly outnumber status Algonquins in Ontario.

Why is the Land Claim controversial among the Algonquins?

No community is monolithic or speaks with one voice. While some obviously support the land claim and see as it as a step towards self-determination, it has also been criticized by a number of Algonquin individuals and organizations. Some Algonquins have argued that:

  • The Land Claim Subordinates Non-Status Aboriginals and Communities

The non-status communities included in the AOO negotiations were originally set up as area committees by Pikwàkanagàn. These committees excluded or ignored pre-existing communities like the Ardoch Algonquins and Bonnechere Algonquins, who had their own governing structure.

Participation in the land claim has proven controversial and divisive for these communities. At the moment, five non-status communities are currently excluded or abstaining from the negotiations. Of the nine who are participating, six split off from pre-existing communities.

As part of AOO’s structure, Pikwàkanagàn gets seven negotiators – their chief and council, who represent approximately 1,000 status Algonquins. Meanwhile, the nine non-status communities get one negotiator each and represent around 7,000 non-status Algonquins.

The recognition of non-status Algonquins also depends on the land claim itself. Rejecting the land claim would mean losing any official recognition as Algonquin. After centuries of marginalization, official recognition can be powerful – Ardoch Algonquin elder Carol Bates recounts how, “I have seen elderly men with tears in their eyes because they got a card that said they were Algonquin… [they feel that] without a piece of paper to prove it, they haven’t a chance in the world of getting their balance.”

The AOO blood quantum system also excludes non-status Algonquins who cannot prove descent because their ancestors were never recorded on colonial “Indian registries.” This is particularly a problem for those descended from Algonquin women, since they were often simply listed on census records as a nameless “wife.” Bonita Lawrence, a Mi’kmaw academic who has studied the land claim’s effects, argues that defining Algonquin identity by a blood quantum formula, rather than specific ties to the land and community history only creates a “paper” colonial nation.

  • The Land Claim Ignores Québec-Based Algonquins.

The Québec-Ontario border is a colonial construct dividing Algonquin territory. Officially, the AIP says the settlement will not affect Québec Algonquin rights. But Québec-based Algonquins believe the Ontario land claim will extinguish or prejudice their rights in Ontario.

In 2011, Kitigan Zibi, an Algonquin reserve near Maniwaki – whose traditional territory includes Ottawa – threatened to challenge the land claim in court. Then-chief Gilbert Whiteduck noted, “We believe the Algonquins of Ontario cannot enter into a treaty without all of the Algonquin nations having given their approval.”

In 2013, three Algonquin communities headquartered in Québec – Wolf Lake, Timiskaming, and Eagle Village – presented a “Statement of Asserted Rights” (SAR) to the Algonquins of Ontario and the governments of Ontario, Canada and Québec. The SAR outlines the area over which the three communities assert title and explicitly documenting how this overlaps with 3,460 square kilometres of the Ontario land claim.

After being ignored for two years, these same communities issued a press release in June 2015, calling for an immediate halt to the AIP referendum process. Chief Harry St. Dennis of Wolf Lake told a group of Ottawa activists in December, “Our position is that the AOO is a policy fiction, a creation of the federal government to extinguish aboriginal title for real Algonquins.”

  • The Negotiations are Secretive, Top-Down and Culturally Inappropriate

As part of the Algonquins of Ontario structure, non-status communities don’t get a chief and council; they get a chief who is also the negotiator. These representatives are generally not accountable to elders or a council, or arguably to grassroots members. They control their community’s finances, internal communication, and voter lists – and as of 2012, have never failed to be re-elected. To take part in the negotiation process, they are also sworn to secrecy for the duration of the negotiations.

While the original lead negotiator on behalf of Algonquins of Ontario was Greg Sarazin, an Algonquin from Pikwàkanagàn, the chief negotiator is now a white Bay Street lawyer from Toronto, Bob Potts. As Heather Majaury, a non-status Algonquin and theatre artist, put it in an October 2015 letter to the AOO, “I see no commitment to a process that incorporates Algonquin Anishinaabeg legal and language concepts into the framework therefore I fear the entire process is biased in serving the western colonial system…”

  • Extinguishment is the Land Claim’s Goal

According to the AIP, the goal of the land claim is to establish “certainty,” so that economic development can take place. As part of this development, the agreement promises benefits for the Algonquins. But with a one-time payment as the only concrete promise, some fear that “certainty” will simply enable corporate exploitation of natural resources on Algonquin territory – with a few token Algonquin jobs thrown in to sweeten this bitter pill.

The AIP says that signatories’ aboriginal rights will not be extinguished but modified and defined by agreement. The concrete definitions offered in the document would essentially reduce and integrate Algonquin individuals and communities so that they would function as Canadian citizens and municipalities. This includes “fee simple” land ownership instead of collective indigenous title. Algonquin signatories would also be subject to taxation, and the province would get jurisdiction over wildlife management, with nods towards consultation over hunting.

All in all, Majaury says, “I fear this is simply another and most recent arrangement to assimilate us into the Canadian body politic and workforce, so as not to respect our special relationship to the land as Indigenous people.”

These assimilative goals have been the aim of government policy from the 1876 Indian Act to the 1969 White Paper to the current Comprehensive Land Claim Policy. This policy has been characterized by Mohawk policy analyst Russ Diabo as creating “termination tables” in the name of negotiating self-determination — and, in his work for four Québec Algonquin communities, he has specifically criticized the Ontario land claim on this basis.

  • The Land Claim Trades One-Time Payments for Eternal Pardon 

The settlement of the land claim would grant the Algonquins of Ontario a one-time payment of $300 million and a transfer of 475 square kilometres of land in 200 separate parcels. This amounts to 2% of their traditional territory in Ontario.

To put the dollar figure in perspective, in the 1980s when the land claim was submitted, forestry was generating $500 million per year on Algonquin territory in Ontario; in the 1990s when negotiations began, the Ottawa River generated $1 million worth of hydro per day for settler society.

In return for these one-time transfers, colonial governments will be absolved of any legal responsibility for past crimes committed against the Algonquins. As the AIP puts it, “The Final Agreement would release Ontario and Canada from any past infringements of Aboriginal Rights, including failures to consult, that may have occurred prior to the Effective Date of the Final Agreement… Algonquins [will] release Canada, Ontario and all other Persons for all claims, demands, actions or proceedings of whatever kind, whether known or unknown, that the Algonquins ever had, now have or may have in the future.”

But as former co-chief of the Ardoch Algonquins Bob Lovelace points out, “The affluence of Ontario has been acquired from the sacrifice of our ancestors’ health and the wealth of our homelands.” In return for these one-time payments, settler society would be granted an eternal legal pardon.

There is also no revenue-sharing to fund negotiations Funding is considered a loan. This means that Algonquins of Ontario have built up a $18 million debt (and counting) that will be subtracted from the final settlement. This debt creates pressure to settle quickly and for less, as well as destroying the AOO’s ability to walk away from the table – “we run the risk of being strong-armed to settle, terminate title and rights, to be released from debt,” according to Majaury.

Algonquins like Majaury and Gehl worry that these one-time transfers will not meet the needs of future generations. For a one-time payment, they are being asked to trade their ancestors’ land and destroy their children’s future. An equitable settlement, according to Gehl, would secure enough land and resources for the Algonquins to “build our own institutions, that will allow us to make our life better, that will work for us – our own courthouses, schools, healing centres, places where our spirituality is valued and can be freely practiced…”