Correcting the lines of history: Cree land claim lands in Ontario Superior Court

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Rarely do straight lines define natural borders. But when the provinces of Quebec and Ontario were created in the 19th century, it was a simple decision to just slice through northern lands that held no meaning for the white politicians drawing the new map.

This unnatural division did not take into consideration First Nations who already occupied the territory. On March 3, the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee launched a land claim suit in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, which has set off a spirited debate between multiple First Nations in both Quebec and Ontario. The area at the heart of the lawsuit is a 48,000-square-kilometre tract of land that sits on the Ontario side of the border.

The goal of the suit is to have the titles and rights over the land on a shared basis with other Aboriginal communities as well as restitution in the form of $495 million for the past breaches of the Cree Nation’s right to these lands. The figure derives from the economic activity that has taken place in the region despite the fact that the rights to the land have never been ceded by Eeyou Istchee.

“Our people have used, occupied, governed and protected these lands in Ontario since time immemorial, but our rights in these lands have never been addressed in any treaty,” said Grand Chief Mathew Coon Come as the lead representative plaintiff in the case.

Evidence for the case comes from centuries-old documents that record the historical use of the land by the ancestors of the Quebec Cree as well as expert testimonials from anthropologists who are familiar with the area. The case itself traces its roots back to 1989 when the Grand Council of the Crees launched the claim against the federal government in a case entitled Coon Come 3.

“We had an amendment also to include claims related to the Cree Nation’s rights and titles in Ontario,” Coon Come said of the earlier suit. However, the claims had to be put on hold as hydroelectric conflict was coming to a head. The land claim was given new life when a federal judge ruled last July that the claim had to be brought to the Ontario Superior Court for resolution.

“Why Aboriginal rights? Because our people used to hunt, fish and trap in that area,” Coon Come explained. “And title? Because we have never surrendered our rights and title to the land.”

James Bay Cree territory claim

Outline of the territory claimed in the CNG’s lawsuit

Larger image of territory claim

The main grievance is that the government of Canada breached the Cree Nation’s rights to the land during the division of the Quebec and Ontario.

Following the announcement of the suit, however, neighbouring First Nations voiced opposition to the claim. Groups opposing it include the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), which represents the First Nations communities of Treaty No. 9, and the Mushkegowuk Council that represents seven NAN First Nations on the James Bay coast in Ontario.

The land claim overlaps with two Ontario First Nations in particular: the Moose Cree and the Wahgoshig First Nation. In response to the lawsuit, Moose Cree Chief Norm Hardisty Jr. said his community is “committed to doing whatever is necessary to ensure the protection of our rights and our jurisdiction in our homeland.”

Although the case has a long history, the lawsuit is seen as taking an unanticipated turn. The perception of Coon Come 3 was that it was primarily concerned with issues other than land rights and title.

“It is only in the last few years that, as we understand it, the Quebec Crees have decided to focus their efforts on making claims to our homeland,” said Hardisty. Although there had been a meeting between the two First Nations, it was clear to Hardisty that the Cree Regional Authority had already chosen to bring the case to the Ontario courts. Both the Moose Cree and the Wahgoshig First Nations are consulting lawyers before determining their next steps.

Despite the opposition, the Cree Nation government is determined to press ahead with the case. “What I’m surprised by the leadership on the Ontario side is of how they would go against the Cree,” Coon Come said. He argues that the young Canadian government created the “politics of division” with artificial divisions of Aboriginal territory – without consulting First Peoples.

The Grand Chief also stressed that the case is not about exclusive rights and title but that of a shared basis with other Aboriginal Nations. The case is, ultimately, an effort to repair a historic mistake.

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Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come and Deputy Chief Rodney Mark

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