Saugeen First Nation seeks court ruling on century-old boundary dispute in Sauble Beach

An Ontario First Nation is seeking a court ruling to settle a boundary dispute with a municipal government over a stretch of beach that's a popular tourist destination in the Bruce Peninsula.

Municipality and beachfront restaurant owner dispute First Nation's boundary claim

Sauble Beach is on the Bruce Peninsula along the Eastern Shores of Lake Huron. (Google Maps)

An Ontario First Nation is seeking a court ruling to settle a boundary dispute with a municipal government over a stretch of beach that's a popular tourist destination in the Bruce Peninsula.

On Aug. 6, Saugeen First Nation filed a summary judgment motion with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to confirm ownership of a strip of land at Sauble Beach, Ont., just over 2 km in length. The lands are west of Lakeshore Boulevard, extending between 1st St. S. and 6th St. N.

A summary judgment motion is a tool that allows a court to make a determination on a case where there are no facts to dispute. Both Saugeen First Nation and the federal government say the stretch of beach is part of the Saugeen reserve under the Saugeen Peninsula Treaty, signed in 1854.

In 1990, the federal government began litigation on behalf of the First Nation to address other claims of ownership. In 1995, Saugeen filed its own claim.

Chief Lester Anoquot maintains that the dispute over Sauble Beach is a reserve boundary issue, not a land claim.

Anoquot said not much will change if the court recognizes their boundary. He said there is one food vendor in the area in question and that business could continue on a lease with the First Nation.

"We feel strongly that our claim is legitimate," he said.

The Crowd Inn is the only privately-owned building on the 2-km strip of Sauble Beach in question. (Google Maps)

David Dobson, the owner of the Crowd Inn, disagrees. 

"I have a legal deed that can be searched back to the original Crown patent so I'm the legal owner of this land," said Dobson.

"Whether it's under dispute or not, legally I own it."

He said through his research on the 1854 treaty he has been able to match the terms to the township map that was submitted by surveyor Charles Rankin.

"In my mind, that's conclusive evidence that that's where [the reserve] ends," he said. 

His family has owned the business since 1948. Dobson, 57, said he's hoping to retire soon but sees no end in sight to the land dispute. 

Tentative agreement in 2014

Nuri Frame, one of Saugeen's lawyers in the Sauble Beach case, said the issue of settlers claiming ownership and rights to this part of Saugeen's reserve has been going on for well over a century.

"Having treaties respected is critically important to Indigenous people," said Frame.

In 2014, a tentative agreement between the First Nation and the Town of South Bruce Peninsula was proposed that would have recognized Saugeen's ownership of the strip of beach. During the municipal election that fall, former councillor Janice Jackson unseated the previous mayor, running on a platform that the town would not settle out of court. She was re-elected in 2018.

A news release from Saugeen First Nation announcing that the summary judgment motion had been served said the South Bruce Peninsula mayor "is not interested in being neighbourly and is more concerned with politics than evidence."

Town of South Bruce Peninsula mayor Janice Jackson interacts with Wiarton Willie, the prognosticating groundhog, in Wiarton, Ont., in February 2018. Sauble Beach is also part of the municipality. (Hannah Yoon/The Canadian Press)

Jackson said she was "disappointed that the chief has made such disparaging remarks."

"Simply because he claims that our beach belongs to his band doesn't mean that we should hand over the keys," she said.

She said the town has ownership over the land and that Sauble Beach is "one of our most valuable assets."

She said the town looks forward to its day in court and hopes the case is resolved quickly.

There is no timeline on when a judgment will be made but both sides of the dispute agree it's been going on for too long.


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with CBC since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences.