Duke Peltier is Ogimaa at Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. Dean Sayers is chief of the Batchewana First Nation. They are spokespeople for the Robinson-Huron Treaty Litigation Fund.
When the leadership of the community makes promises to the people, it must keep those promises and be true to its word. That is a fundamental value of the Anishinaabe, and we believe it to be a fundamental value of Canadians when they think of government.
The government made an agreement with our Anishinaabe ancestors – who had stewarded the land for millenniums – 171 years ago on behalf of the Queen and on behalf of the community of settlers that was becoming Canada. The Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850 was made with our ancestors who had fought alongside these settlers in alliances against the French and against invading Americans.
The Crown made promises that we would share in the wealth and the opportunities that flowed from development of our lands in exchange for living as our neighbours and sharing in our lands and their forest and mineral bounty. One part of this agreement to share was an annuity – an annual payment – to our people.
However, since 1874, the first and last time the annuity was adjusted to $4 a person, the governments of Canada and Ontario have ignored that treaty covenant, have breached that sacred promise, and have broken their word over and over again.
They broke the promises they were required to give under their own Royal Proclamation law. They broke the promises they gave our ancestors in order to use the lands and resources that have created jobs for settlers and their descendants, helped create thriving settler communities around us, and enriched corporations, their shareholders and provincial and federal government treasuries.
Over those 171 years, we, the people of these lands, have had virtually no benefit from the land and wealth we agreed to share with our treaty partners because of these broken promises.
As recently as this year, the Government of Ontario continued to say that it was free to do what it wanted about these promises. Ontario claimed it was free to decide that it need not share any of this wealth and that no one – not the courts, not the community – could require the province to keep its promises.
But that is not true. Earlier this month, the Ontario Court of Appeal said “no” to its government in a unanimous 5-0 decision. “No” to the idea that these promises need not be kept. “No” to Ontario’s claim that it alone would decide what these promises meant. “No” to Ontario deciding what it means for the Anishinaabe to share fully in the new nation and the vast wealth that Anishinaabe military assistance and treaty partnership made possible.
The courts have been clear to Ontario and to Canada that the Robinson-Huron Treaty imposes a mandatory enforceable obligation to share more wealth.
There is more wealth in the territory to be shared. The annuity under the treaty should have been increased in a way that enabled us to benefit from a rise in living standards in our territory – to flourish as the wealth in our territory was realized.
The justices knew our collective Indigenous and settler history. Through their decisions, they have given a history lesson that the Ontario and Canadian governments must learn and act on with great speed.
Our Anishinaabe ancestors would never have contemplated a future where their treaty with the Crown saw their descendants living in enforced poverty while surrounded by thriving communities built on the bounty of their lands.
Our ancestors would never have entered a treaty partnership based on such a future. And what the court and the law agree on is that the promise was and is for something very different – and that is what they have told Canada and Ontario. The promise was for a good life in flourishing communities: Not the exact same life for the Anishinaabe and the settlers as we have different cultures, but a life that is healthy, dignified, secure and as enriched as any life enjoyed by those with whom we shared our wealth.
Now, the governments must listen to the clear and resounding decision from Ontario’s highest court. Ontario should avoid pursuing another appeal with the Supreme Court of Canada and come to the negotiating table to deliver on their broken promises after 171 years. It is better than letting the courts continue to decide for them.
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