GEORGIAN BAY – An agreement to finally settle the Wiikwemkoong islands land claim appears within sight, with an as yet undisclosed financial settlement and the transfer of a number of parcels of lands to the west of Killarney and a small parcel located off of Highway 17, following the closure of public comments through the draft Environmental Study Report (ESR) process.
The release of the final ESR was intended to take place by August 1, but the comment period was later extended to September 15 and then extended again to October 10. Now a number of cottager associations are seeking to have the ESR bumped up to a higher level of examination.
“Everyone seems to be on board with the transfers,” said Wiikwemkoong Ogimaa Duke Peltier. “It’s ‘let’s get this done so we can get on with sitting down and negotiating the details’.”
The amount of the financial settlement has been hammered out during earlier negotiations between the council of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory and the Government of Ontario. The two governments are working together to resolve an outstanding land claim relating to the islands off the eastern shore of Manitoulin Island. “The goal of this process is to conclude a fair and final settlement that will bring closure to these longstanding issues and foster reconciliation,” notes the government website.
Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory (WUT) asserts that its rights and interests in and to these islands under the Treaty of 1836 have never been ceded or extinguished and that claim has been accepted by the Crown.
The proposed settlement lands include provincial Crown land within the area of the boundary claim; and alternative provincial Crown land on the mainland, as well as Philip Edward Island and a number of surrounding islands, which will act as replacements for patented lands that cannot be returned to WUT. These lands will be transferred to Canada in preparation of being added to the WUT. At least one parcel of land, that located on the Highway 17 corridor, is not anticipated to be attached to the WUT reserve lands in order to maintain the ability to attach the land for commercial loan purposes.
The province advises that the transfer of these lands may impact existing Crown land uses in the area, including existing licences or permits and that Ontario will not take away private property from third parties to settle land claims. Any acquisition of private property is on a willing-seller/willing-buyer basis and access to private property will be protected.
Among the non-willing sellers are the current owners of Fitzwilliam Island. Where lands have been patented and the owners unwilling to sell, either other lands of equal value have been substituted or a financial settlement agreement reached between the band and the Crown.
The Georgian Bay Association (GBA) has issued a critical response to what they characterize as a “flawed final ESR.”
“In our opinion the EA process followed in this instance and the ESR reports issued are flawed in the following ways,” notes former GBA president John McMullan in an article in that organization’s GBA Update. “The impacts of the proposed transfer of Crown lands on the numerous annual visitors and Northern GBA members are not adequately addressed; the class EA process fails to provide measures to mitigate the identified impacts, as it should under the EA Act; the final ESR fails to acknowledge the Agreement; and the province ignores its long-standing promise of a park covering most of the area within NGBA’s boundaries.”
One of the key issues for many stakeholders in the area to be transferred are concerns that the traditional access the public has enjoyed to those Islands and other Crown lands will be curtailed.
Ogimaa Peltier said that those concerns are unlikely to be any more of a problem than if those lands had been turned into a provincial park.
“The only difference from the way it is now is that they might need a permit,” he said. “Just like they would if it were a provincial park.”
The potential economic benefits to the WUT of such an arrangement would come at a cost of little more than a minor inconvenience to current and future visitors to the region, he suggested.
As for the ESR, its take on future uses and development of the lands in question lies outside of its parameters.
According to the provincial government website on the process, “The Class EA process for the proposed land disposition included: an assessment of the existing environment identification of potential effects, identification of mitigation and protection measures, where appropriate consultation with municipal, provincial and federal government officials, government agencies, First Nations and Métis communities, potentially affected and interested persons, and interest groups”
The Class EA focuses only on potential impacts arising from the transfer of Crown land to Canada, to be set apart as reserve for Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. Alternatively, if this is not possible, the lands will be conveyed to a designate of Wiikwemkoong in fee simple, to be held in trust for the benefit of Wiikwemkoong. The process does not include any assessment of what the land will be used for in the future.”
Some residents have raised objections to the land claim process and the Crown “giving away land that should be there for the enjoyment of every citizen.” Ogimaa Peltier’s rebuttal is that nobody is giving WUT anything.
“We never gave away that land, the land was taken illegally and this whole process is driven by the fact that the Crown realizes it has to settle this claim,” he said. While the government is providing compensation for the lands that are now owned by people who do not want to sell it back, the process is simply righting an historic mistake.
Both the Crown and the WUT have agreed that it is in everyone’s best interests to negotiate a fair settlement of the claim rather than go through the expensive process of the courts.