Why a decades-old dispute over Algonquin ancestry is key to a city hall controversy

A 2013 court ruling encapsulates why some doubt the legitimacy of the Algonquins of Ontario to negotiate unceded rights over a vast swath of eastern Ontario.

Questions over ‘root ancestry’ at the heart of outrage against planning decision

Ottawa city council is caught in a debate over Algonquin identity, but it didn't start with their approval of a new rural community pitched by the Algonquins of Ontario. (CBC)

In a Pembroke, Ont., boardroom in 2013, a retired judge weighed the evidence to determine whether a voyageur who claimed in the mid-1800s to be a fugitive from an English death sentence was in fact an Algonquin. 

This was no random historical exercise, but a key decision that would affect the claims of hundreds of descendents hoping for a place on the Algonquins of Ontario membership list. 

The Algonquins of Ontario (AOO) were then two years away from signing an agreement in principle (AIP) on a modern treaty with the federal and provincial governments. A spot on the membership list meant being able to vote on the AIP, a key milestone on the path to a final settlement.

James Chadwick, a retired Superior Court justice, was hired as part of the AOO's membership review committee to adjudicate on the validity of Algonquin ancestry claims, which partly rely on a connection to an internally approved list of root ancestors. 

That use of root ancestors — in this case, an Algonquin forebear with a proven genealogical link to living descendents — is at the heart of a controversy that has engulfed the city of Ottawa. 

Several Algonquin First Nations in Quebec have voiced their outrage over Ottawa city council's approval of a land deal with the AOO and its development partner Taggart as a means to put "reconciliation" into action. 

The Quebec First Nations, which don't recognize the border that splits their traditional territory in two, also doubt the legitimacy of the AOO to negotiate unceded Algonquin rights over a vast swath of Ontario stretching from Algonquin Park to Ottawa, because they don't believe having a single root ancestor is enough to make someone Algonquin. 

One group that wrote to the mayor about their concerns was the Algonquin Nation Secretariat (ANS), which examined the 2015 AOO voters' list. It concluded that 40 per cent of the AOO membership was based on one or two ancestors "from centuries ago," and whose family trees have not interconnected with Algonquin branches for at least 100 years. 

"We, and our sister communities believe that this is a travesty," said the ANS letter, signed by Wolf Lake First Nation Chief Lisa Robinson. 

Government insisted on AOO's creation

Pikwakanagan, which sits 147 kilometres west of Ottawa, is the only federally recognized First Nation of the 10 Algonquin communities that make up the AOO. The other nine entities are only recognized for the purposes of treaty negotiations.

When negotiations with the federal and provincial governments began in the early 1990s, both governments insisted a final agreement must include everyone outside the reserve who could claim Aboriginal rights, said Greg Sarazin, the chief negotiator from 1991 to 2001.

"The government wanted to settle all rights and title issues in one negotiated settlement," said Sarazin. Effectively, the government didn't want to negotiate solely with Pikwakanagan only to have other claims pop up later, so the AOO was created to deal with every claim at once. 

The Algonquins of Ontario have a land claim over most of eastern Ontario. (Algonquins of Ontario)

"Throughout 1991 and 2001, the genealogy and the enrolment of Algonquin people was very tightly scrutinized and managed by an office here in Pikwakanagan," said Sarazin.

When negotiations broke down in 2001 — partly over that government insistence that status and non-status Algonquin interests be represented by one body — funds dried up and enrolment screening was devolved to the various communities that eventually comprised the AOO. 

According to Sarazin, who ran for Pikwakanagan chief in 2020 but lost, by the time negotiations resumed in 2004 and 2005, the enrolment list had swelled.

Voyageur's case examined

There were many in Pikwakanagan who wanted to see that enrolment list curtailed, and the hearing eight years ago before Chadwick was the final chapter in a long internal battle over the use of Thomas St. Jean dit Laguarde as a root ancestor. 

The voyageur was initially approved as a root ancestor in 1999. The decision was reversed in 2000 by an internal screening committee, which reversed itself again months later. 

The battle continued into 2011, when a band councillor with Pikwakanagan First Nation filed a challenge against Laguarde's claim to Algonquin ancestry. The challenge then went before Chadwick for a final decision.

Pikwakanagan came armed to the 2013 hearing with a report compiled by the historian and researcher Joann McCann, who had evidence to debunk the claim that Laguarde was Algonquin. Noting that there are many different spellings of his name, she compiled a report based on an "extensive review of historical documents" on Laguarde's ancestry.

Beginning with the marriage of his parents in 1793, McCann found that in all marriage and birth records, as well as in various 19th-century censuses, neither Laguarde, his parents nor his children are ever identified as "Aboriginal or Algonquin," but as French and Catholic. 

But the Mattawa-North Bay Algonquin First Nation, which is not recognized as a First Nation under the Indian Act, countered the challenge with its own proof in support of Laguarde. 

​​​Lagarde dit St. Jean [is] descended from Algonquins. He is a fugitive and has been condemned to death under the authority of the English...- Letter from a Father Brunet in 1845

It included a notary document and a priest's letter, along with witness testimony from two women who were descendents of Laguarde's daughter Sophie St. Jean and her French Canadian husband, Xavier Turcotte.

One woman said she remembered overhearing her mother and uncle speak in Algonquin. When she asked where they learned to speak the language, she was told "they would not discuss whether the family was Indian." The other woman spoke about her father trapping, hunting and taking the children into Algonquin Park for months at a time, living off the land. 

However, Chadwick's ruling hinged on the text of a letter purportedly written by a priest called Father Brunet in 1845 to the Archbishop of Montreal. 

"I happened upon the little mission at Allumette Island.... With two young [Iroquois] Indians from Lake of Two Mountains, I [stayed] [secretly] with a voyager Tomas Lagarde dit St.Jean, [who is] a member of the Masons and also descended from Algonquins. He is a fugitive and has been condemned to death under the authority of the English at Montréal," according to an English translation text quoted in Chadwick's written ruling. 

The letter tipped the scales for Chadwick. 

"Based upon all the evidence, and in particular the new evidence of correspondence between Father Brunet to the Bishop of Montréal dated 1845 … I am satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that Thomas Saint Jean dit Laguarde is an Algonquin Ancestor," wrote Chadwick in his 2013 ruling.

Veldon Coburn, seen here in 2019, is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa in the Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies. (Mike O'Shaughnessy/CBC)

Veldon Coburn, an assistant professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Ottawa, has been searching, to no avail, for the original copy of the priest's letter.

A member of Pikwakanagan, Coburn worked with a researcher who had access to the archives of the Montreal Archdiocese. But he's only been able to locate a letter from 1845 that confirms Brunet was an Oblate priest who could perform Catholic duties up the Ottawa River and in all of Upper Canada. 

Coburn, who continues the search, said he was surprised Chadwick gave the letter such weight. 

"The record of [Chadwick's] decision gave an example of the danger," said Coburn. "One-thousand, one-hundred individuals rely on him to be on the [AOO] list and the other communities fought to keep him on."

AOO 'strengthen criteria' for membership

Algonquins of Pikwakanagan Chief Wendy Jocko released a video statement last week saying that "only distant heritage" was no longer enough to allow membership within the AOO. 

"We have worked very diligently to strengthen the criteria for enrolment, requiring anyone who wishes to register to demonstrate a sustained connection to the original historical collectives," said Jocko in the video statement.

Robert Potts, a partner with Toronto law firm Blaney McMurtry and principal negotiator for the AOO, said in a statement to CBC News that the organization adopted the new, tighter criteria in January 2020.

"The criteria also require that this connection be met by satisfying multiple factors over two centuries," said Potts.

The Algonquins of Ontario have purchased land near Boundary Road and Highway 417 to develop with their partners, Taggart. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Pikwakanagan grandmothers protest

Last week, Ottawa city council voted to include the Tewin land owned by the Algonquins of Ontario within the urban boundary, despite the recent controversy. 

But the retroactive tightening of the AOO membership may have created another dilemma.

Ottawa lawyer Michael Swinwood is representing Kokomisag Tiji Pikwakanagan, a group of traditional Pikwakanagan grandmothers, in an ongoing legal challenge before the Ontario Superior Court against the AOO's role in negotiating a modern treaty. 

Swinwood said thousands of people have been taken off the AOO rolls since the AIP vote. 

"I know they've cut a lot of people off the list, as recently as last year," said Swinwood. "[The AOO] are not the proper title holders."

Former negotiator Sarazin questions whether the AOO's 2016 vote on the AIP remains legitimate. Pikwakanagan members voted against it by a margin of 327 to 246, while more than 90 per cent of the rest of the AOO membership voted in favour. 

"Thousands of people have been removed from the list because, as it turns out, they are not of Algonquin descent at all," said Sarazin. 

"The issue comes down to: who then approved the AIP?"

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