7 cases that made headlines

There are hundreds of outstanding land claims in Canada, both comprehensive and specific. Most of these claims are moving forward slowly, behind closed doors. This slow pace often exasperates members of the First Nations concerned, resulting in dramatic gestures that have not always met with the unanimous approval of the community.
Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Mohawk protester Brad Larocque (also known as Freddy Krueger) come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kanesatake reserve in Oka, Que., on Sept. 1, 1990. (Shaney Komulainen/Canadian Press)

There are hundreds of outstanding land claims in Canada, both comprehensive and specific. Most of these claims are moving forward slowly, behind closed doors. This slow pace often exasperates members of the native groups concerned, resulting in dramatic gestures that have not always met with the unanimous approval of the community.

Here are some examples of events that have made headlines in recent years:

The Lubicon Lake Cree

The Lubicon Lake Cree live in an isolated region in northern Alberta covered by Treaty 8, signed in 1899.

Lubicon Chief Bernard Ominayak, left, and Assembly of First Nations Chief Ovid Mercredi hold a news conference in Ottawa on Nov. 28, 1991. ((Ron Poling/Canadian Press))

However, because of the group's remote location, the Indian Affairs agents at the time were not able to reach its members to have them sign the treaty. These Cree therefore did not surrender their rights and were never granted reserve lands.

Today, the land claimed by this First Nation is used for forestry, oil and gas development. The planned TransCanada pipeline will also run through it. The Lubicon say they have not been consulted, which Ottawa denies.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples looked into the matter. In September 2010, he urged Canada to reach a negotiated settlement of outstanding land claims and recommended that, in the meantime, a moratorium be placed on resource development in the region.

The Innu caribou hunt

Land disputes sometimes arise among communities in the same cultural group. This is what happened to the Innu of Quebec and Labrador.

In 2010, some 150 Innu from Quebec participated in a caribou hunt in Labrador. They killed 250 caribou, a species the government of Newfoundland and Labrador considers threatened. The Innu wanted to assert their rights in a region that, according to them, is part of their traditional territory.

Five Innu communities in Quebec and Labrador are currently negotiating two distinct treaties.

Five other Innu communities in Quebec, represented by the Innu Strategic Alliance, are not participating in these negotiations. They have submitted their own claims for lands that, in some places, overlap with those of the Labrador Innu.

The Algonquins of Barriere Lake

In recent years, members of the Algonquin community of Barriere Lake have frequently mounted blockades on logging roads and Highway 117. They have been protesting against what they say is the government's failure to respect land agreements and against certain actions on the part of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

In 1991, the community signed an agreement with the governments of Quebec and Canada aimed at the sustainable development and co-management of renewable resources on their traditional territory of 10,000 sq. km in La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve. In 1998, the Algonquins and Quebec signed a bilateral agreement whereby the parties would finish the work begun in 1991 and sign new agreements to promote community development.

The Algonquins wanted, among other things, to receive a share of forestry revenues, which total an estimated $100 million per year. Since 2006, implementation of the agreements has been put on hold, partly because the legitimacy of the band council's leadership has been called into question.

Some community members accuse the federal government of wanting to interfere in the First Nation's internal affairs by bypassing the customary Algonquin procedures for choosing leaders. The federal government wants the community to elect their chief the same way other First Nations do.

The Six Nations of Caledonia

During the American War of Independence, the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy were loyal to the British Crown. To thank them for their military support, in 1784, Governor Haldimand granted them a tract of land the length of the Grand River, near Hamilton, in southern Ontario. Today, the reserve that is home to the Six Nations of the Grand River represents only five percent of the original area granted.

Since February 2006, the members of the Six Nations of the Grand River have been occupying a housing development in Caledonia, beside the boundary of their reserve. They claim that this land belongs to them and that they never agreed to surrender it. The first months of the occupation led to violent confrontations between native protesters and Caledonia residents.

The Six Nations of the Grand River have submitted close to 30 specific claims in total.

Ipperwash Provincial Park and military camp

On Sept. 4, 1995, some 30 Kettle Point and Stony Point Chippewa occupied Ipperwash Provincial Park in Ontario, asserting that there were sacred burial sites there. Two days later, one of the protesters, Dudley George, was shot and killed by provincial police.

Two aboriginal protesters stand by a barricade near the entrance to Ipperwash Provincial Park, near Ipperwash Beach, Ont., on Sept. 7, 1995. (Moe Doiron/Canadian Press)

The Chippewa had been occupying the adjacent military camp (Camp Ipperwash) for the past two years in protest against the slow pace of negotiations with the federal government over the return of their land.

The land in question was given to the Chippewa at the time of the Huron Tract Purchase in 1827. The Chippewa sold to the Crown more than two million acres of land located between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. In exchange, they received (among other things) reserve lands, including those of Kettle Point and Stoney Point.

In the 1920s, the community sold a portion of these lands, including an area that is now part of Ipperwash Provincial Park. This land is today the subject of specific claims.

During the Second World War, the federal government appropriated land belonging to the Stony Point band to build Camp Ipperwash, which later became a training camp.

In 1981, the federal government paid $2.5 million to the community to use the Camp Ipperwash land, promising to return it when it was no longer needed. By 1993, the land had still not been returned and the occupation began.

The death of Dudley George led to a public inquiry, which published its report in 2007.

In 2009, the Ontario government reached an agreement with the First Nation and transferred 56 hectares of the provincial park to the community, thus meeting one of the main recommendations of the report.

The sundance at Gustafsen Lake

For one month in the summer of 1995, some 20 members and supporters of the Shuswap Nation occupied an area on the shores of Gustafsen Lake, 350 km northeast of Vancouver.

John Ignace, a protester also known as Wolverine, is led from a helicopter by an RCMP officer on Sept. 17, 1995, after the armed standoff at Gustafsen Lake ended. ((Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press))

Like most First Nations in British Columbia, the Shuswap had never surrendered their rights to the land around the lake.

Since 1989, a rancher had allowed the people to use his land, which they considered sacred, for their sundance ceremony. But in 1995, the participants refused to leave.

At the height of the occupation, the area was surrounded by close to 400 soldiers and RCMP officers. There was extensive gunfire, but no one was killed.

Fifteen of 18 accused were eventually found guilty of a variety of offences ranging from mischief to assault against police officers.

While many native leaders disapproved of the actions of the Gustafsen Lake protesters, they nonetheless urged governments to speed up land claims settlements to prevent such events from recurring.

Kanesatake and the Mercier Bridge

In March 1990, the Mohawks of Kanesatake erected a blockade to protest against the expansion of a golf course and the construction of housing on land they had claimed in the neighbouring municipality of Oka.

Three months later, on July 11, about a hundred Sûreté du Québec officers charged the barricade. An exchange of gunfire resulted in the death of Cpl. Marcel Lemay. That same day, other Mohawks from the Kahnawake reserve located a few dozen kilometres away blocked the Mercier Bridge, which carried 70,000 cars daily between Montreal and the South Shore suburbs.

It wasn't until the end of August that the Mercier Bridge was reopened to traffic. The Kanesatake barricade was dismantled on September 26.