‘It needs to be a day of reckoning:’ Parliamentary committee studying land back  

‘I think this study will really explore the connection of Indigenous people to land in a way that people don’t naturally equate to property.’

Land back study

A school bus rests on the road at 1492 Land Back Lane Blockade in Caledonia, Ont. Photo: APTN file

The standing committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs is undertaking a 12-week study on the restitution of land to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. In other words, they are studying land back.

The committee will hear from an array of witnesses representing Indigenous peoples from nations across the country and compile recommendations for the House of Commons.

“Canada likes to talk of itself as a nation of rule of law, where’s the law that says that colonizers can show up and usurp someone else’s land?”

The committee’s study will examine the access and transfer of Crown land across Canada, Indigenous rights related to those lands, comprehensive land claim completion and compensation as well as the impacts of the historical and continued dispossession of Indigenous peoples from land and the impact on economic development and resource extraction.

Committee chair and Liberal MP, Jenica Atwin (Fredericton) says the study sets the stage for an important conversation that has been “a long time coming.”

“We’re hoping that through this study, Canadians are going to be right there with us. We’re hoping to have this conversation with a multitude of voices from across the country with different visions, perspectives, and identities from various nations,” she tells APTN News.

Land back study
‘It needs to be a day of reckoning, the power and wealth that this nation is built on – and it’s built on Indigenous lands,’ says Bruce McIvor. Photo: Kierstin Williams/APTN.

The committee will be examining the topic for a much longer timeframe than typical studies, which run for six to eight meetings.

“We knew we had to have a lot of sessions because of the diversity across the territory. The motion was for a maximum of 12 meetings which is the most we’ve had for any of our studies,” says Atwin.

“It took so long for us to get to the right space to have this dialogue, we will be setting this for as long as we need to study it.”

The land back movement is not new – but has received increased momentum in recent years as land defenders stood their ground against the RCMP in Wet’suwet’en territory, protected their land rights at 1492 Land Back Lane, and their constitutional rights for fishing and harvesting.

According to the Land Back Red Paper, published by the Indigenous-led think tank, the Yellowhead Institute, “the project of land back is about reclaiming Indigenous jurisdiction through consent, recognition, and community-based management and governance” – concepts McIvor says he works to embody when dealing with governments and land claims.

“Under the Canadian Constitution, the provincial governments in the provinces say that it’s their land, it’s their Crown land. I’ll have provincial and federal governments come to the table with my clients and say, ‘We’re here to discuss your land claim.’”

“And when they do that, I stop and say my clients don’t have a land claim. You’re claiming their land. That’s who’s got the land claim, the provincial and federal governments.”

The latest claim comes from Garden River First Nation where on Thursday, they filed a lawsuit against the Ontario and federal governments over stolen lands. Garden River Chief Andy Rickard alleges the governments stole 70 per cent of the First Nation’s land by coercing them into to signing an 1859 treaty. Rickard, Elders, and band members made their way into Queen’s Park, led by an eagle staff, drummers, and dancers.

In December 2021, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller told reporters “It’s time to give the land back,” to Indigenous Peoples, recognizing the federal government’s willingness to explore the conversation.

Standing committee member and Liberal MP Jaime Battiste (Sydney-Victoria) put forward the motion for the committee to undertake the study, citing political will and shifting public perception of the truth of Canadian history as the driving force behind his motion.

“We’ve reached a point in our history in Canada where we’re open to having this conversation. I don’t think it was possible before the residential school findings and the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation,” says Battiste.

“There’s so much misconception when it comes to Indigenous lands and there’s so much Canadians don’t know about how the land was acquired, usurped, or is unceded.”

In April 2023, the Vatican rescinded the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of 15th-century papal bulls that sets the foundational structure for Canada’s claim to Crown sovereignty and centuries of land theft. The rescinding of the document is a Call to Action of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and furthers questions of Crown sovereignty as the default notion in legal decisions over land rights.

For Battiste, the study presents an opportunity for Canadians to learn alongside members of Parliament and shift their understanding of what Indigenous land means.

“When Indigenous peoples talk about land, a lot of them aren’t talking about it the same way Canadians are… I think this study will really explore the connection of Indigenous people to land in a way that people don’t naturally equate to property, it’s not just a commodity to be bought and sold.”

So far, the committee has heard from McIvor, Dahti Tsetso, deputy director of Indigenous Leadership Initiative, and Ellen Gabriel who was at the standoff known as the Oka Crisis in the early ‘90s. She’s still fighting land issues in Kanehsatà:ke Mohawk Territory.

“Land back is about restoring our Indigenous laws, our relationship with mother earth, ourselves and all our relations,” Gabriel told the committee.

The next meeting on the restitution of land to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities will take place on May 31, 2023. Members will hear from Des Nedhe Development, the First Nations Financial Management Board, and Chief Allan Polchies of St. Mary’s First Nation.

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