The provincial and federal governments have been short-changing First Nations in Ontario for more than a century, a superior court judge ruled last week as she ordered long-stagnant annual payments be raised.
The court found that the Crown has “a mandatory and reviewable obligation” to increase the annuity under the Robinson-Huron Treaty, which was signed in 1850.
Justice Patricia Hennessy wrote that it’s the Crown’s duty to fulfil the treaty’s promise to increase the payments over time.
“The Treaties were not meant to be the last word on the relationship,” she wrote. “Renewal of the relationship was necessary to ensure that both parties could continue to thrive in changing environments.”
Hennessy did not say how much the payments should be, noting that there may be further steps and considerations in the implementation of her ruling.
A delegation of 21 First Nations argued in the 2014 lawsuit that it is unfair that the annual payment of $4 to each of its members has not been raised, even though some members have been living in poverty.
Hennessy’s decision states that an increase hasn’t occurred since 1875, despite the treaty’s promise to “increase the collective annuity when economic circumstances warrant.”
There are about 30,000 beneficiaries to the Robinson-Huron Treaty in the 21 communities.
The chiefs from the affected territory in northern Ontario have said the Anishinabek people agreed under the treaty to share their lands and resources with newcomers. In return, the Crown would pay annuities that were supposed to increase as the territory generated revenues from forestry, mining and other resource development.
A spokesman for the Ontario government said it’s in the process of reviewing the court’s decision and declined to say anything further. The federal government also said it was reviewing the ruling, adding it “remains open to discussions with the interested parties.”
Ontario NDP legislator Sol Mamakwa, the Opposition’s Indigenous relations critic, said the decision is a step forward to reconciliation and he expects a “significant” increase to the annuity.
“Indigenous people have always been treated as second-class citizens in this country,” said Mamakwa. “When we think about the resources from the land, it’s the livelihood of our culture, it’s the livelihood of our people — and I don’t think there’s a set amount for that, but I think it matters to us.”
Mamakwa said the annuity raise would increase access to resources along with programs and services offered in those communities.
Batchewana Chief Dean Sayers said the decision is “huge.”
Hennessy said in her decision that the treaty was vague, and could be interpreted in many different ways, but that a payment of $4 per person “suggests that the Treaties were a one-time transaction.
“As the historical and cultural context demonstrates, this was not the case; the parties were and continue to be in an ongoing relationship,” she wrote.
Hennessy also said the court and all parties involved in the treaty should develop processes and procedures for the “modern era” on how to move forward with the payment increases.