Caldwell First Nation gets land back and reserve status

Caldwell First Nation, one of only three First Nations in Canada without reserve lands, has attained reserve status for a 80-hectare lot at the corner of Bevel Line Road and Seacliff Drive in Leamington.

'We can finally become one again,' says Coun. Robyn Perkins

Caldwell First Nation's property that has now obtained reserve status, which is located at the lot on the corner of Bevel Line Road and Seacliff Drive in Leamington. (Caldwell First Nation)

Members of Caldwell First Nation are celebrating after obtaining reserve status for the first time.

An 80-hectare property at Bevel Line Road and Seacliff Drive in Leamington, which was acquired a decade ago in a land claim settlement, has officially been designated a reserve. This means members of the nation now have a permanent home on the ancestral lands they have been fighting to access for hundreds of years. 

"This is not only an historic moment for Caldwell First Nation, it is a profound milestone in Canadian-Indigenous Truth and Reconciliation as Caldwell was one of only three First Nations in Canada without reserve lands," the nation said in a news release Tuesday.

Caldwell has had two claims to land in the region. The first dates to 1790, when land on the north shore of Lake Erie was surrendered to the Crown. The First Nation said this happened even though Caldwell was not a signatory nor a beneficiary to the treaty.

The second occurred during the War of 1812, when Caldwell was promised retention of land at Point Pelee in return for fighting for the British. In the 1920s, they were burned out of their homes by the RCMP, a news release from the nation states.

"After 230 years, the promise from the Crown has finally come to fruition," the news release says.

Focus on language, culture, jobs

Robyn Perkins, an elected councillor with Caldwell, told CBC News the nation has big plans for the land.

"We're hoping we can provide job opportunities for members to really drive them back to the community," she said. "Our cultural department is going to be expanding. We're hoping to have more focus on language and culture so that will also be on that 200 acres."

That comes with an opportunity to educate the public about the history of Caldwell First Nation and its relationship with the land. While the nation's main settlement was on Point Pelee, Perkins said farmers in the area of the new reserve-status land have found artifacts such as pottery and arrowheads.

"We feel that over centuries, our histories have kind of been skewed, it's been misunderstood, and we just want the true story and the true history of Caldwell and our warriors, our ancestors, to be remembered — that we were on this land," she said.

Perkins said they are also inviting interested members of the nation, who are spread across the continent, to move back to their ancestral land. And while Perkins admits it may be hard to convince members of the nation living in the balmy American sunbelt to come back, she's optimistic overall.

"Our hope is that we'll have more members than not move back," she said.

To that end, the nation plans to build a net-zero residential development along with an administrative building and community facilities.

"It's been long anticipated, long awaited, and it's just such a huge milestone for everybody," said Caldwell First Nation director of operations Nikki van Oirschot.

"We've been planning and working toward this moment for quite some time, and so we're ready, we're ready to move forward with the nation," said Caldwell First Nation Coun. Stan Scott.

End of a long process

The nation was not able to host an in-person community celebration because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they say they plan to have one next year.

Acquiring the land and getting reserve status was not an easy journey and took a decade. The nation says it had to work with many government agencies at both the federal and provincial level, which included getting environmental assessments for the land.

But, given that the nation has waited centuries to get the land back, 10 years did not seem like much.

"Hurdle after hurdle after hurdle was presented to the people, and to our ancestors, and it's taken 230 years for us to get to this point. So it's been quite a journey, and it really speaks to the resilience and strength of the Caldwell people," van Oirschot said.

For Perkins, the significance of the news can't be overstated. 

"When I first received the news, it felt like the heart of the Caldwell First Nation was beating properly, that there was some healing happening," she said. "I feel like we can finally become one again. Caldwell's heart is finally beating the proper beat."