Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and her Ontario counterpart have signed a historic agreement with the Algonquins of Ontario that will eventually see wide swaths of eastern Ontario signed over to the Indigenous people as part of a modern treaty.
The deal encompasses roughly 36,000 square kilometres, stretching from Ottawa to North Bay, including large parts of the Ottawa Valley. (Parliament Hill itself falls into the catchment area.)
The ministers and representatives signed an agreement in principle, meaning the final details have yet to be worked out or ratified. A final deal could take another five years of negotiations, although the ministers were reluctant to provide a timeline.
Bennett said that all land in private hands would be left untouched, and the bulk of the territory to be assumed by Algonquins will be Crown-owned. Signing with her was Ontario Indigenous Affairs Minister David Zimmer.
A decommissioned military base in Ottawa, CFB Rockcliffe Park, situated in a prosperous neighbourhood of the city, is also expected to be part of the final treaty. There will be no new First Nations created as part of this treaty.
Ontario, the federal government and the Algonquins of Ontario have been negotiating for 24 years, but the Algonquins have laid claim to the land for more than 250 years — and they claim the Crown never extinguished their title to the land with the signing of a treaty.
Bennett said the agreement is historic in that it would be the first modern-day treaty in Ontario, and could serve as a model for negotiations with other First Nations people across Canada.
"We were once wealthy, we lived well off the land," Kirby Whiteduck, the chief of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, the largest First Nations reserve in the territory, said. "Then we were begging for a piece of land. The agreement-in-principle is more of a weight off our shoulders, not so much of a celebration."
A key element of the agreement will be a cash payment — although Bennett was unable to provide an exact sum. Earlier negotiations pegged the figure at $300 million, but Whiteduck said that amount is more of a floor than a ceiling.
"That's like, at this point, a financial figure that's on the table," Whiteduck said in an interview with CBC News, pointing to the valuable land that will be signed over to his people.
"It may change, because we're not done negotiations yet. We hope to improve upon that. It's not the whole package,"
Robert Potts, the senior negotiator for the Algonquin claim, said all told, the money available to the Algonquins will be much more than $300 million.
"There's a significant package that is being built as we move further down the line, as we move towards a treaty, but it is considerably larger than what we are seeing on the face of it," Potts said, adding any payment will be tax-free, making it more valuable.
Bennett presented Whiteduck with a box at the signing ceremony, to symbolize a renewed relationship. But the box was empty prompting Whiteduck to joke, "We plan to fill it up."
Who is an Algonquin?
Another point of contention is just who qualifies as an Algonquin under the agreement.
Chiefs have previously raised red flags about the loose criteria used to determine eligibility, saying it lumps in many non-Indigenous peoples who do not have a recent familial tie to First Nations peoples who identify as Algonquin.
Whiteduck said they would consult with genealogists and other experts to determine who can lay claim to the benefits that will flow from a final treaty agreement.
Can't just be of descent
"It is a point of contention, and it's something we're currently working on right now. There is some guidance in law, and jurisprudence that we're trying to look at very closely," he said.
"You can't just be of descent, if you don't exercise your Aboriginal rights and belong to a collective, you don't necessarily have Aboriginal rights, according to the law, but there are cases of extenuating circumstances that we have to consider."
He said it's difficult to estimate how many beneficiaries there will be, but he estimated it's roughly 7,000 to 8,000.
"You have to demonstrate you have a social or cultural connection to one of these communities," Potts said. "I can assure you a tremendous amount of effort and thought is going into this."