Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Glen Hare is hopeful that this is the year serious talks begin with the Ontario government on creating the Treaty Commission of Ontario (TCO).
After all, he says, if the onset of the coronavirus has a silver-lining, it is that it has opened lines of communication between First Nations and the Ford government.
“Even in this COVID world now, we’re at the table with the government. Every call, we’re all on there. It’s working so awesome … the ministers are talking to us so we openly share our concerns,” said Hare.
Discussions about the creation of a TCO are long overdue. The call for a TCO came after the Ipperwash Provincial Park occupation 25 years ago. But Hare said the TCO hasn’t been at the top of anybody’s agenda recently.
“I don’t know why nobody on the government side wants to bring it up. It’s the same old, same old. I think there’s a couple of times where we did bring it up and (said), ‘Let’s re-establish it. Let’s put this office back in place.’
“But what happens? There’s an election call. Once that happens, all new people, then we’ve got to start all over, we’ve got to train and educate everybody. And four years is not long. And again, different players, different leaders on the government side. That’s the disappointing part of everything here,” said Hare.
He admits frustration on the part of the chiefs has also led to the TCO losing ground.
“There’s got to be (government) resources put into it. Why should we bang our head against the wall and there’s no resources? We’re going to be spinning our wheels,” Hare said.
It’s a sentiment the Ontario Regional Chief’s Office shares. In an email response to questions from Windspeaker.com, the regional chief’s office spokesperson said, “It’s not a lack of desire, but timing, resources and political will at this point.”
On Sept. 6, 1995, Anthony “Dudley” George was shot and killed by Ontario Provincial Police. Cecil Bernard George was assaulted and arrested by the OPP on that day. The Ipperwash Park occupation resulted when Stoney Point members and supporters protested after Canada failed to return the land, as promised when they expropriated the land of the Stoney Point band during the Second World War.
In 2003, the Ontario government established the Ipperwash Inquiry tasked with reporting on the events surrounding Dudley George’s death, as well as making recommendations on how to avoid violence in similar circumstances. Those recommendations were made public four years later.
Commissioner Justice Sidney B. Linden’s first 13 recommendations all centred on the creation of, and work to be undertaken by a TCO, which would be an “impartial agency to facilitate and oversee the settling of land and treaty claims in Ontario” in the hopes of avoiding the violence that resulted from the government and police response to the Ipperwash Park occupation.
The TCO was to be funded adequately by the federal and provincial governments. The province was also directed to fund First Nations to allow them to participate in the process and “for compensation for breaches of legal obligations by the Crown.”
The Ipperwash Inquiry Priorities Action Committee (IIPAC) was formed, co-chaired by the Ontario regional chief and the minister of Aboriginal Affairs. One of the four working groups established under the IIPAC banner was tasked with exploring the development of the treaty commission. However, despite IIPAC and three resolutions passed by the Chiefs of Ontario during special chiefs in assemblies held in 2008, 2009 and 2011, the creation of a TCO faltered.
IIPAC is now defunct.
“There was a lack of political will and process (from both Ontario and Canada) for First Nations in Ontario to be confident in pursuit of establishing a Treaty Commission of Ontario,” said the regional chief’s spokesperson.
There was also a difference in opinion with the federal government wanting an education-focused body and the province failing to indicate a substantive position.
“First Nations in the end were frustrated with overall positions of Canada and Ontario, as well experiencing some differences on what the final outcome should look like,” said the spokesperson.
That lack of cohesiveness could be seen in one of the last TCO resolutions passed by the Chiefs of Ontario during the Special Chiefs in Assembly on April 13, 2011. The resolution, Treaties-Unifying our Approach, stressed that the creation of the TCO “in no way prevents First Nation and Treaty regions and other First Nation entities from pursuing the resolution of their specific grievances in other forums.”
Hare believes there is value in pursuing the TCO still. It’s a value he found in the Indian Commission of Ontario (ICO), which was established by a resolution of the Chiefs of Ontario and orders-in-council by the federal and provincial governments in 1978. The ICO folded in 2000 when the federal government declined to renew the orders-in-council. Since then there has been no permanent tripartite body in Ontario to deal with land claims.
When Hare was chief of M’Chigeeng First Nation he says his Nation worked with the ICO, which provided “a communication flow in trying to reach out to different ministers and government.”
Hare said the ICO was shut down because it gave First Nations a voice.
A TCO would be that voice again, he believes, but the province has to be willing to listen.
The Ipperwash Inquiry also called for the creation of a provincial Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. Linden said such a ministry would ensure “that Aboriginal issues receive the probity and focus they deserve and it would also herald a commitment by the province to a new, constructive relationship with Aboriginal peoples.” That ministry was created June 2007. Up to that point, Ontario had a Native Affairs Secretariat.
Even with a separate ministry, Hare says there has been little communication.
“We’ve only started working with the ministers because of COVID. That’s why I said a number of things must be put on the table,” he said. “Sure COVID is here, unfortunately, but we still have to do business aside from COVID. The world has to move.”
The regional chief’s office “would like to bring (the TCO) recommendation back to the forefront and proceed in formalizing discussions again,” said the spokesperson.
There are treaty commission offices in Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Manitoba.