'We do belong to the land': Missanabie Cree First Nation inching closer to establishing reserve

A northern Ontario First Nation is getting close to ending a century-long wait for designated land as it negotiates the creation of a reserve with the federal government.

'An opportunity for us to reconnect with that physical space and allow us to become a community once again'

Logo for Missanabie Cree First Nation. (Supplied/Missanabie Cree First Nation)

A northern Ontario First Nation is getting close to ending a century-long wait for designated land. 

The Missanabie Cree are trying to finalize a settlement with the federal government to officially designate a reserve in an area that was selected by its members on traditional territory north of Chapleau and Wawa.

"This has been a long time coming," said former chief Glenn Nolan, who is advising the community in its negotiations with the federal government.

"We've never had that validation that we do belong to the land, and the land has a specific area."

The provincial government is designating approximately 3,884 hectares to the First Nation, according to current Missanabie Cree Chief Jason Gauthier.

"I give myself very little credit for it because I know we stand on the shoulders of giants," Gauthier said.

"It's very time consuming, but it's a labour of love."

Validation of 'all the time that we have lost'

The leadership of the Missanabie Cree have been asking for a reserve ever since Treaty 9 was signed in 1905 and 1906.

Nolan said he believes the transfer of land could help pave the way for reconciliation.

"To get our designation as a reserve is a validation of all the time that we have lost, and the displacement of our people for over 100 years that the government is finally recognizing the impact that it's had on us and is looking to correct that," Nolan said.

"This is an opportunity for us to reconnect with that physical space, and allow us to become a community once again."

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada wrote that creating a reserve for the Missanabie Cree First Nation remains a priority, and work is underway to complete the process in a timely manner. 

Litigation is expected to continue through the spring of 2018, according to the First Nation.

Inspiring people to return

Gauthier is not wasting any time. 

He said he is already planning infrastructure, as well as educational and economic opportunities for the future reserve.

One of the biggest challenges could be moving people from urban centres, such as Toronto, Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay. 

"We've lived in these areas and next to so many different cultures and so many different people over such a long period of time that moving from those areas is going to be difficult," Gauthier said.

"But what we try to do is we try to inspire our community members to come back to the territory."

Gauthier said he is trying to encourage people by looking for ways to create meaningful employment, proper housing and health care. 

He adds the First Nation is also looking to make use of the latest technology, including green energy.

'We have a right to be here'

"Not only are we excited, but even the other First Nations are leaning in to see how this is going to happen and how we're going to do this," Gauthier said.

"We're in a very interesting position that a lot of First Nations never really had the opportunity to look at some of the technology that we have today that they may not have had way back when they were creating a reserve."

Gauthier estimates between 10 to 15 per cent of members will move back to their territory immediately, and there may be options for seasonal residence. 

Nolan said he is confident people will return. 

"I think this is what will provide us with that foundational understanding for every one to know that this is our traditional territory and we have a right to be there," Nolan said.

"This is our home."

olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

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Olivia Stefanovich is a network reporter for CBC News based in Toronto. She previously worked in Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter @CBCOlivia. Send story ideas to olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.