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Land Claims

Trees The Royal Proclamation of 1763 established the framework for land negotiation in Canada; declaring that access to, or ownership, of land traditionally occupied by Aboriginal peoples could only be obtained by the Crown by way of a treaty. The Crown was effectively acknowledging that unlike in the United States where land was often obtained from Aboriginal peoples with violence and force, it would gain access to land based on a process of treaty-making. However, even this seemingly peaceful process of land acquisition did not come without its own contentions and consequences — consequences that continue to shape the lives of Treaty 6 members to this day.

According to the terms of Treaty 6, the signatory First Nations relinquished their rights to their traditionally-occupied lands, and in exchange, were promised certain provisions including specially-designated parcels of land (called reserves) on which they would reside. In signing the treaty, the First Nations were agreeing to abide by its strict conditions concerning their right to hunt, trap, gather, and fish, as well as where they could establish their homes and communities. The government, too, was expected to honour the treaty terms and refrain from construction or development within reserve boundaries.

Unfortunately, the government has not always abided by the terms laid out in the treaty. In some cases, land initially offered for reserve use was not officially recognized as such, and development was initiated despite objections from the First Nations. There have been numerous cases in which the government has intruded onto reserves after locating resource deposits. They have also, in other cases, allowed rail lines and roads to cut through reserve boundaries, disrupting the natural ecosystem. Campgrounds, golf courses, and even military ranges have all been constructed on land that was promised exclusively to the First Nations in a treaty. What is more, the government has made numerous attempts to make dissent and protest against these types government activities difficult. In 1923, for example, the federal government made it a criminal offence for Aboriginal peoples to hire lawyers to assist them in pursuing a land claim. Prior to 1991, First Nations were also unable to challenge government decisions without bringing their case to court. These kinds of government actions have not deterred First Nations representatives, who believe that according to treaty terms they are entitled to receive what was promised to their forefathers over a century ago.

Winter Work Debate over land, boundaries, and sovereignty is ongoing and complex, as the settlement of a land claim can have grievous consequences for both sides. A special organization, known as the Indian Claims Commission (ICC), has been formed to deal with specific claims, or claims that deal with “the breach or non-fulfillment of government obligations found in treaties, agreements, or statutes.” 1 The ICC was formed in 1991 and provides neutral and independent land claims mediation, with the hopes of alleviating the backlog of claims that have been submitted. The ICC is in the process of investigating a number of inquiries, and has already helped settle numerous claims regarding Treaty 6 land. One recent example concerned a segment of land which, under the terms of the treaty, was to be held in trust for the Cold Lake First Nations. However, in 1953, the government converted part of the reserve lands to create the Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range. The ICC visited the First Nations communities to gather evidence and found that:

“The evidence was sincere, compelling and uncontradicted. The Commission was struck by the totality of the destruction of these communities. A centuries-old traditional lifestyle characterized by communal self-sufficiency was abruptly terminated "for the good of Canada." For 30 years, claims for fair compensation and reasonable rehabilitation were repeatedly advanced by the First Nations, and repeatedly rejected by successive governments.” 2

The ICC determined that the government had breached its treaty and fiduciary responsibilities by expelling the Cold Lake First Nations from lands that were promised to them. A settlement of $25.5 million was reached in 2002, and 5,000 acres of additional land were granted to the Cold Lake First Nations.

Land claims and settlements are an inevitable part of the Treaty 6 legacy. With each settled claim, the First Nations and the Canadian government are closer to obtaining closure and ensuring a more peaceful future for all.


1 Indian Claims Commission, “History of the ICC and Specific Claims in Canada.” About the ICC. http://www.indianclaims.ca/about/history-en.asp (accessed August 2006).

2 Indian Claims Commission, “Cold and Canoe Lake Inquiry [Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range], August 1993.” Claimsmap, Alberta. http://www.indianclaims.ca/claimsmap/primrose1-en.asp (accessed August 2006).

Sources:
Indian Claims Commission, “History of the ICC and Specific Claims in Canada.” About the ICC. http://www.indianclaims.ca/about/history-en.asp (accessed August 2006).

Indian Claims Commission, “Cold and Canoe Lake Inquiry [Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range], August 1993.” Claimsmap, Alberta. http://www.indianclaims.ca/claimsmap/primrose1-en.asp (accessed August 2006).

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