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Vast Indigenous Land Claims in Canada Encompass Parliament Hill

Ian Austen, New York Times
November 12, 2017

PIKWAKANAGAN FIRST NATION, Ontario — Whenever Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or his cabinet ministers speak in certain parts of Ontario or Quebec, they begin by acknowledging they are on “unceded Algonquin territory.”

That recognition is just one of the ways Mr. Trudeau’s government has been trying to signal a top priority: righting the wrongs Canada has done to indigenous people, especially over land that aboriginals say was taken from them unjustly.

But finding common ground on this issue has proved to be one of Mr. Trudeau’s most difficult policy initiatives, and critics say efforts to resolve the land disputes have bogged down. But both sides agree on the importance of sorting out the claims.

“The process of negotiating land claims should be an absolute pillar of reconciliation,” said Ken Coates, a historian at the University of Saskatchewan who studies treaties and is a consultant to indigenous groups. “This is our chance to get it right and if we don’t — boy, when will we get the chance again?”

Of the many issues dividing Canada’s federal and provincial governments from its indigenous people, land claims are among the most symbolically important and economically consequential, often involving vast amounts of territory.

Some claims involve hundreds of millions of dollars, and tribes are often interested in controlling the land at issue, by, for example, having a say over logging, oil exploration and mining.

One claim by various Algonquin groups involves the 8.9 million acres of the Ottawa watershed — which includes Canada’s Parliament buildings and Supreme Court. The government thought it had settled that claim in principle a year ago, but it has ended up in litigation anyway.

The claims are legally thorny, often requiring historians, archaeologists, geographers and geologists to give evidence sometimes stretching back before recorded history to support, or challenge, them.

In some regions, land may have been occupied by different indigenous groups at different times, even changing hands after battles that were unrecorded. These groups may all assert rights, and claims can overlap.

Then there is the problem of treaties. Some indigenous groups, like the Algonquins, never signed treaties giving up their land. The government says it is talking with about 140 indigenous groups in that situation.

Others did sign treaties, and a government tribunal that deals with treaty disputes has 72 cases and is so overwhelmed that it cannot estimate how long it will take to resolve them.

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