GROUP URGES LOCAL TOWNSHIPS TO ACKNOWLEDGE INDIGENOUS LAND RIGHTS

By Matthew Behrens

An hour south of Ottawa, the picturesque heritage town of Perth – voted Ontario’s prettiest community by TVO viewers – is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, as are surrounding townships Tay Valley, Drummond/North Elmsley and Beckwith. But in promising 200 bicentennial events to mark its founding as a military settlement, this popular tourist destination appears to have overlooked a significant number of Indigenous residents with roots in the area that go back 8,000 years: the Algonquin people.

A Feb. 25 Chamber of Commerce article in the EMC community newspaper, as part of the 200th anniversary coverage, described the European colonists who survived the difficult transAtlantic journey as “brave, intrepid souls [who] would cut a civilization out of what was essentially an area completely devoid of any social network.”

It goes on to quote a series of local historians who express their awe and admiration for those settlers who seemed to overcome impossible odds but fails to mention who, exactly, was already here to help them.

“This was not an empty land but a homeland,” said Maureen Bostock of the Lanark County Neighbours for Truth and Reconciliation, during the March 1 delegation with the Perth town council.

The settlers were welcomed and befriended and helped through the early years of settlement. In exchange, the newcomers took over more and more of the traditional territory – pushing aside Algonquin people with little regard for the cultural, material or spiritual needs of the Indigenous people or the land that sustained them.

In order to address Perth’s major historical oversight, Bostock said she and a group of settlers, recent immigrants and members of local Indigenous communities came together “to bring into the light the true history of the area.” The ad hoc group aims to point out that the bicentennial must include acknowledgement of “the occupation and the dislocation of Algonquin people, as their lands were settled illegally and the forests were cut down.”

Taking their cue from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), as well as work done by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination, the Lanark County group drafted a powerful resolution that has been presented to all area municipalities celebrating their 200th anniversaries.

Among the commitments, the group seeks formal acknowledgement that these towns continue to exist on unceded Algonquin territory (in the form of a statement to be read out at all official town events and council meetings) and adoption and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation. Additional parts of the resolution call for annual recognition of National Aboriginal Day (June 21), inclusion and celebration of Algonquin history as part of the town’s bicentennial and endorsement and implementation of TRC recommendations. Similar resolutions have been passed by communities such as Vancouver and Fort St. James.

As Perth town councillors looked on warily during the March 1 presentation, Bostock reminded them that Perth was actually established in “contradiction to British Law and the Royal Proclamation of 1763.” These laws stated that settlers could only be given land after an agreement had been reached between First Nations and the Crown, with the decision being ratified at the 1764 Treaty of Niagara, “where delegations of Indigenous peoples from across what is now southern Ontario met and exchanged wampum belts with a representative of the British Crown.”

“Through this peace process,” Bostock continued, “the Algonquin people agreed to share the land but did not then nor ever since surrender their title and rights to the land. The history of broken treaties began almost immediately as the Crown granted parcels of unceded land to reward soldiers for their service.”

As part of the Lanark County group’s presentations to their 21st century municipal representatives, they have reached back to quote from a 19th century delegation that similarly went to town council to address grievances resulting from colonial practices.

The 1840 address by Omamiwinini (Algonquin) leader Kaondinoketch (reproduced by Ardoch Algonquin leader and Indigenous studies professor Paula Sherman in the book At Home in the Tay Valley) describes a painful reality already existing a mere quarter-century into Perth’s history: “Our hunting grounds that are vast and extensive and once abounded in the richest furs and swarmed with deer of every description are now ruined. We tell you the truth, we now starve half the year through and our children, who were accustomed to being comfortably clothed, are now naked.”

Such words are not normally spoken in town council gatherings, which are generally the stuff of waste management or property easement issues and at the Perth and Tay Valley meetings, not a single question was asked by elected representatives.

“We knew that our presentation may be met with resistance from councillors whose families may celebrate their history as settlers,” Bostock said. “Our intention is not to bring shame on anyone’s ancestors but to balance the narrative of that history and require all governments to take action to right this historic wrong.”

While each body received the presentations as “information,” the Lanark County group hopes to follow up to ensure that the townships adopt the resolution as well as cooperate with organizing future educational events. Doing so will remind all who live in the area of the rich history of the Algonquin people and the fact that they are still here among us, not to be disappeared either in historical celebrations or daily life.

A full copy of the resolution is available by emailing tasc@web.ca.

This article first appeared in the Leveller .Vol 8 No. 6 (March 2016).