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The Robinson Huron Treaty court challenge and the promise of clean drinking water

Robinson Huron Treaty

Twenty-one First Nations are challenging Canada and Ontario in court for the failure of successive governments to meet obligations under the Robinson Huron Treaty. Their lawsuit addresses the issue of the annuity to be paid to each member residing in the 92,463 square kilometres of territory in northern Ontario covered by the treaty.

The treaty was signed between the Crown and the Anishnabek people in 1850 stipulating a $2 annuity. In 1874 that was increased to $4 a year per person, but it was supposed to continue to increase as a share of the revenue the Crown derived from the lands granted to its use under the treaty. The statement of claim seeks a calculation of the revenue generated from the treaty territory since 1850, an increase in annuities, and compensation for losses stemming from the Crown’s failure to increase annuities over the past 140 years.

Batchewana First Nation Chief Dean Sayers says, “The Robinson-Huron Treaty anticipates and provides economic benefits for us in perpetuity. The annuity was intended to be our revenue stream, our share of wealth generated by revenues from our territory, yet many of the beneficiaries live in poverty.”

He says he hopes Canadians will agree that Indigenous peoples should have the revenue for clean water, good housing and education.

TVOntario has reported, “At the end of 2011, 37 out of the province’s 207 reserves were under drinking water advisories. On many reserves, clean water is only available at a central distribution point, forcing residents to collect water and return it to their homes. In other cases, water has been imported onto the reserves at a high cost.” Council of Canadians water campaigner has noted, “As of May 31st, 2014 there were 130 drinking water advisories in 91 First Nation communities across Canada (not including British Columbia).”

The Robinson Huron Treaty area includes the: Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan First Nation, Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation, Aundek Omni Kaning First Nation, Batchewana First Nation, Dokis (Waabnoong Bemjwang), Fort William First Nation, Garden River First Nation, Georgina Island (Chippewas of Georgina) First Nation, Michipicoten First Nation, Mississauga First Nation, Nipissing First Nation, Pays Plat First Nation, Pic Mobert First Nation, Pic River First Nation, Shawanaga First Nation, Thessalon First Nation, and Whitefish River First Nation.

The Toronto Star notes, “A court decision could possibly affect numbered treaties across Canada with annuity payments that haven’t been adjusted since the 19th century, said Robert Janes, an aboriginal and constitutional legal specialist based in British Columbia. …For example, in Treaty 3 (which includes parts of northern Ontario and southeastern Manitoba), every year the government gives out $5 bills to the people covered under the treaty. It has been the same since 1873 and there has never been an adjustment for inflation, he said.”

The Council of Canadians has repeatedly called for a $4.7 billion expenditure over a ten year period to provide clean drinking water and sanitation for First Nations in Canada. While a calculation of the outstanding annuity payments is still to be done, it has been estimated the figure owed under the Robinson Huron Treaty could be between $500 million and $1 billion.

Chief Sayers has highlighted, “If Canada is not going to protect us, we’ll protect ourselves. Canada is not protecting our interests as they agreed they would. They are protecting corporate and foreign interests.”

Further reading
First Nations go to Federal Court over their right to drinking water

Council of Canadians expresses solidarity to First Nations for drinking water lawsuit