Grand Chief Coon Come addresses the lawsuit for recognition of Cree rights to northern Ontario region

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In light of the ongoing controversy regarding the Cree Nation Government’s land claim in Ontario Superior Court and vocal opposition to the lawsuit by representatives of First Nations communities in northern Ontario, the Nation reached out to Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come for details on the litigation and clarification on the Grand Council’s position. Here are his responses.

The Nation (TN): What was your motivation for bringing this land claim back to the table?

Grand Chief Coon Come (CC): Our motivation for pursuing this legal proceeding can be simply stated: Cree rights.

The imposition of the Ontario-Quebec boundary cut through our homeland of Eeyou Istchee, and our rights in these lands in Ontario have never been properly recognized or addressed in any treaty. There has been a long-standing commitment on the part of the Cree Nation and its leadership to achieve recognition of the Cree Nation’s rights and interests in the part of our traditional territory that is located in Ontario. This commitment is not new. The Cree Nation’s asserted rights in Ontario were left unresolved in the negotiations that led to the signature of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, and have been on the books since at least 1989, when we launched the Coon Come No. 3 lawsuit in Federal Court.

In the decades since 1989, many aspects of the original Coon Come No. 3 lawsuit have been resolved, but the Cree Nation’s rights in Ontario remained unaddressed. In recent years, we have enjoyed significant successes in advancing and protecting Cree rights over the parts of our traditional territory in Quebec and in the offshore region in James Bay and Hudson Bay. We decided that the time was right to renew our focus on advancing Cree rights in Ontario.

In July 2015, the Federal Court ruled that the Cree Nation’s claims relating to Ontario lands had to be pursued in Ontario Superior Court. Following on this decision, the Cree Nation recently commenced a new proceeding in the Superior Court of Justice of Ontario, Coon Come No. 4, in which both Canada and Ontario are named as defendants. In this new proceeding, we are seeking recognition of the Cree Nation’s Aboriginal title and Aboriginal rights over certain lands located in Ontario, as well as damages for past breaches of our rights.

TN: Have there been any updates on the legal process? When will the case be heard and when will the CNG be presenting their claim?

CC: This is an important and complex historical case, and we are at a very early stage in the proceedings. We anticipate that it will be many years before this case will be heard, and before the Cree Nation will have an opportunity to present our arguments for the full recognition and fulfillment of our rights over all of our traditional territory.

By way of example, in the Tsilhqot’in case from British Columbia, which was the first time a declaration of Aboriginal title has been granted by a court in Canada, the case took more than a decade to get to trial, and the trial lasted nearly five years. The case then took another seven years for the appeal process after trial, including going all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which issued its final judgment in June 2014.

But as our history shows, the Cree Nation is not afraid of long fights. We will continue to fight for our rights in Ontario until they are recognized.

TN: Who will be affected by the outcome?

The Coon Come No. 4 proceeding is about achieving recognition of the Cree Nation’s rights over its traditional lands in Ontario. Our lawsuit expressly recognizes that other Aboriginal peoples also used and occupied these lands, in the past and through to the present. The Cree Nation’s claim in Coon Come No. 4 does not aim to affect the rights of other Aboriginal peoples in these lands, but rather seeks to achieve recognition of the Cree Nation’s rights.

TN: With the negative response from some of the Ontario First Nations concerned with the land claim, are there plans to meet and discuss with the other Nations affected by the lawsuit?

We have always been, and remain, open to discussing this lawsuit with other First Nations. We strongly believe that there is more that unites us than divides us, and that we will all be stronger if we work together.

TN: What would you like to say to the people of Moose Factory and the surrounding region following former Chief Hardisty’s harsh comments concerning the lawsuit? Now that he is no longer Chief has there been any indication of whether or not the Moose Cree Band Council is still standing behind his statements?

CC: Former Chief Hardisty’s recent open letter came at the very end of the Moose Cree First Nation’s hotly contested general election. I prefer to see his comments in that political context, and not necessarily a reflection of the position and views of the Moose Cree people or its council.

I also understand that the newly elected Chief of the Moose Cree First Nation, Patricia Faries-Akiwenzie, is an experienced and well-respected Moose Cree lawyer who has previously served as Chief of her Nation. I want to congratulate her on her election, and to invite her to discuss this case with me, once she has had a chance to settle (back) into her role as Chief.

As this lawsuit moves ahead, I look forward to working with Chief Faries-Akiwenzie and her community, and with other neighbouring Ontario First Nations, so that we can better understand and support each other, and so that we can work together as much as possible to advance and exercise our rights.

TN: Do the Moose Cree stand to benefit if the lawsuit is successful? Are Mocreebec and other nations concerned?

CC: As I have said before, the Coon Come No. 4 case is about the rights of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee over the parts of our traditional territory located in Ontario. It is about reclaiming from Ontario and Canada some of the rights and benefits that have been denied to us over the centuries. To the extent that we are successful in advancing these rights and claims, all members of the Cree Nation will benefit from this case.

The members of MoCreebec are all members of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee. Although the MoCreebec community is not itself named as a plaintiff, all members of MoCreebec are represented by the plaintiffs in the Coon Come No. 4 proceedings. In addition, the Coon Come No. 4 statement of claim proclaims and confirms that the MoCreebec community is the 11th community of the contemporary Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee.

More broadly, the Coon Come No. 4 case challenges the legacy of colonial dispossession that lies at the foundation of the laws and institutions of the Canadian federation. In Coon Come No. 4, the Cree Nation is working to move the law of Aboriginal title and Aboriginal rights forward, and to advance the understanding, recognition and restoration of Aboriginal histories and rights in Ontario, and across the country.

TN: What are you hoping that the Quebec Cree and the Cree of Ontario will gain if you win the battle in court and what is your vision for the future for the Cree territory in Quebec and in Ontario as this claim goes to court?

When I envision a post-Coon Come No. 4 Cree Nation, I imagine a Cree Nation that possesses and exercises real governance powers and rights over our entire traditional territory, the lands that stretch across the provincial boundaries that were historically imposed upon us. I imagine that future generations of Cree people will be able to fully experience, benefit from and actively use and safeguard our entire traditional homeland, as our ancestors once did.

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