Municipal leaders should seize the opportunity to learn

In several of Manitoulin’s Christian communities, those whose places of worship are located within municipal boundaries, there is often a reminder to congregations that they are meeting in the traditional territories of the Odawa, Ojibwe and Pottawatomi people.

There is nothing implied by this statement, often published in the church bulletins for Sunday services to give some context to the larger environment where Sunday worship services as well as the whole range of other church activities take place.

It’s a simple statement of fact: cultures presently represented by Manitoulin Island’s First Nation Communities previously had the use of all of Manitoulin Island, including the lands presently occupied by our present-day places of worship. When they are not located in and serve the populations of First Nation communities.

This acknowledgement that people of European decent have not always been here, but that others’ ancestors have lived here for a long, long time seems to be a good place to start when considering how our two cultural communities presently co-exist, generally in harmony.

It was, then, something of a surprise to read in late 2014 a report from a meeting of the Manitoulin Municipal Association, the MMA, (the organization where elected representatives of Manitoulin’s municipalities meet monthly to discuss matters of mutual interest) that any number of reasons were offered in order to postpone an invitation from the tribal chair of the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising (UCCMM) whereby municipal officials could be briefed on the terms of the UCCMM’s land claim, filed in 2013.

Several MMA members were concerned about meeting with the UCCMM because the claim has been filed and so will in time be subject to scrutiny and eventual arbitration with the government of Ontario and possibly Canada and so wished to have a legal opinion as to the consequences of having some explanations offered to them by the UCCMM.

This has echoes of the time about five years ago when the MMA was keen on knowing what, exactly, was being proposed as enabling regulations were being drafted for the long-delayed implementation of the 1990 Manitoulin Land Agreement. When municipal officials were offered the opportunity to attend some of these meetings but were told they would not be able to report what they had heard to their own councils, as a group of municipalities they decided not to take part in the process and, also at that time, sought legal advice.

In the report, it was newly elected Assiginack Reeve Paul Moffat who seemed to be something of a voice in the wilderness when he observed, more then once, that he felt this would be a useful experience and suggested responding to the UCCMM in order to plan the get-together the First Nations group was proposing.

But such a simple motion was not passed. Rather, the group passed a motion to acknowledge the invitation and to say it would obtain legal advice before any such meeting.

This is rather disappointing because the fact is that land claims are in play right across Canada and that, on Manitoulin, the other shoe will drop one of these days when the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve files its own, possibly competing, Manitoulin Island land claim.

From the tone of the account, it read as if most, although not all, of the MMA representatives were afraid of learning the details of the UCCMM’s land claim and this is odd when weighed against the situation five years ago when municipal representatives wanted to know what was being considered but declined the invitation at that time because of the gag order that came with it.

The response at that time from both parties is understandable for the land claim was being assembled.

But now it’s completed and filed in court, surely municipal representatives will want to know how their interests could be affected.

What’s the problem?

As noted, several church communities have taken the step of reminding their flocks of the significance of where they live. Not that farmers in the country and homeowners in towns and church parishes hold their lands in any kind of sufferance: they own their properties outright following the signing of the 1862 Manitoulin Treaty that allowed the Crown to survey and sell all of Manitoulin Island except for the portions that had been set aside or “reserved” for First Nations occupancy and so it has been since then.

In the recent 2014 municipal elections, mayors, reeves and councillors were elected (or, if not challenged, were acclaimed to office) to be positive forces in the community and to make the best decisions they can.

Unfortunately, this reluctance to find out about the local UCCMM land claim first hand and to be able to pose questions in a public forum and to have them publicly answered seems as if some of our elected officials are responding out of suspicion of what they may learn, and suspicion, like its cousin cynicism, is the polar opposite of a positive attitude.

They have been chosen as community leaders and that means, among many other things, making themselves as knowledgeable as possible on issues that might come to bear on their communities.

They’ve been offered the courtesy of a public explanation of an issue that was seen as a vexing one only a few years ago.

They should seize the opportunity now and enthusiastically learn as much as they can about what they Manitoulin Island neighbours deem as important to their future here, expanding they own world view in the process.