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ATIKAMEKSHENG ANISHNAWBEK–In May of this year, the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek (Whitefish Lake) First Nation launched a land claim alleging that the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850 has been violated by the Canadian and Ontario governments.
According to the Treaty, the reserve lands were to be "a tract of land [...] contained between two rivers called Whitefish River and Wanabitaseke seven miles inland."
The boundaries of the original treaty lands extend around almost all of Greater Sudbury up to Wanaitei Lake and past Dowling, halfway between Nairn and Espanola. The line cuts off half of Killarney Provincial Park and slices across territory just above Alban and the French River - 250,000 acres in total. However, when the land was surveyed by Crown officials 35 years later, the reserve was only a fifth of its agreed-upon size.
Since then, settler communities and industry have been set up on the remaining treaty lands. Railroads and mining operations have been established, and have extracted nickel, ore and minerals from the ground over the past 107 years.
Art Petahtegoose is the former chief of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, and is one of the key people behind the claim. As a resident who grew up on the territory and a grandfather who has returned to the land, he has a strong connection to the area and an unbreakable commitment to his people.
He invited us to meet him on the powwow grounds on the edge of lake Atikameksheng, and spoke to us softly about the struggle for land that the people of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek have been locked into for the past 150 years.
As he understands it, all of the original treaty lands belong to the people of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek. Therefore, any money that has been produced through the use of these lands rightly belongs to them.
The financial aspect of the land claim amounts to over $550 billion, and is described by both the band and its lawyer as "conservative," especially considering the recent comments made by a mining executive that describe the "trillion-dollar Sudbury basin" as the richest mining district in North America.
Although the lawsuit's dollar figure has thus far garnered the most media attention, there is much more to this land claim than money. Survival and autonomy are also at the foundation of Petahtegoose's motivations for involving himself in the land claim.
To date, the vast majority of the resources extracted from the treaty lands has resulted in little or no compensation for the Anishnawbek of Atikameksheng.
Instead, there is rampant poverty on the reserve, as is the case for so many reserves across the land now known as Canada. Petahtegoose thinks the resources derived from the land of his people should go towards educating and supporting the community.
On an equally important level, the Anishnawbek of the area consider the land their home and their legacy: "For our people, it's part of our sense of being and there's a sacredness of this place because it's where our ancestors lived. This land is the mother, grandmother, grandfather of our people. We stay here because this is our home, We teach our children that it is our home. If you choose to live here, you must teach you children the same, that there is no other place to be as desirable."
The land has supported the Anishnawbek of Atikameksheng for generations through fishing, hunting, growing fruit and vegetables, and providing all of the resources necessary for survival. The lands have been encroached upon, mined, flooded, and logged, and the people's access to the sugar maple that they once tapped has been cut off.
While money is certainly at issue, Petahtegoose makes the goal of survival in the face of industry very clear: "If you kill the fish here, are you going to buy fish for this family for 100 years? How can you put a dollar figure on a family's ability to take care of itself?"
The claim includes reparation in the form of land, including treaty lands not currently inhabited by humans as well as other "Crown" lands. Petahtegoose envisions these as places where future generations could fish, hunt and perhaps set up businesses of their own.
Should the Band be successful, these reparations would be for damages inflicted not only by the government's breach of the Robinson Huron Treaty, but also by colonial legislation in general.
When the Indian Act came into effect in 1876, native populations in Canada were officially subjected to the rule of a government that they had never previously recognized as their own.
The government relegated people to reserve lands that it had drawn up itself, and then claimed control of these territories. According to Petahtegoose, this is racism in action. "When a reserve is created, colour becomes a factor in how people are looked at. It's been that way since early times," he said.
Petahtegoose goes on to explain that "the people are subjected to the Indian Act because of oppression. The original Indian Act made launching land claims illegal. In order to leave their home communities, First Nations people were required to carry a special pass. Community meetings were seen as potential for insurrection, and so they were criminalized."
Thus, in early colonial times, the Anishnawbek were put under surveillance by the government on lands where previously they had lived as a sovereign nation. The economic effects of government policy have also been deeply felt by the community. "We would not be living in the poverty that we are living in today were it not for the policies of the Crown and of the government," Petahtegoose states bluntly.
When asked what he hopes the claim will achieve, Petahtegoose says that he hopes that "where the line has been placed will challenge our government and the government of Canada. We will uncover what their hope was in signing the [Robinson-Huron] treaty with us. Our government will be posed with the question: 'Where do we go from here?' since we have become victims of policy of the Crown."
Aaron Detlor is the lawyer representing the Band for the purpose of the claim, and he is not so candid in his remarks. "I think that there was an effort to ensure that the reserve was as small as possible so that they could take advantage of the resources," he explains.
In fact, Petahtegoose doesn't even like to use the word 'claim' in this process. "This is our home," he says. "If anything, it is a claim of Canada against us. The land has always been ours."
Petahtegoose explains that the lawsuit is an action "very much" intended to challenge the Indian Act. The claim, as he describes it, will hopefully unearth the reasons for the reserve lands having been drawn at a fifth of their original size, as well as the reasons for the land having been put under government control.
So what does this legal challenge mean for the non-native people who are living on treaty lands?
Petahtegoose explains that he doesn't want to see anyone kicked out of their homes. And he philosophizes, "There are two sides, two ways to be a nation. One is that you create fence and you say 'this is mine.' You demonstrate with your behaviour all the ways that this is mine, and you don't invite people from outside the nation to take part. You make them unwelcome. Or two, you remove the fence. You share the resources because you both have to survive. That is the method that we have to work with."
And so, the distinction between the Anishnawbek and the colonizers is clear: "They put up fences,” explains Petahtegoose, “and said ‘this is mine.’"
The history of the Anishnawbek people is not widely known. Some might say that government-funded schools ensure that both Anishnawbek people and settlers will continue to be miseducated about their past.
As Petahtegoose clearly states, "We need to rewrite the history books because these are the histories not written in there. We must take a look at where it is where we are going. The outcome is the future that we are securing."
Shailagh Keaney is from Sudbury, in occupied Atikameksheng Anishnawbek territory. She has a B.A. in Women's Studies and enjoys fixing bicycles.
Correction: The Indian Act was first passed in 1876, not 1985. The above text has been amended to reflect this.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.