(From left to right: Wikwemikong Chief Duke Peltier, Wasauksing Chief Warren Tabobondung, Shawanaga Chief Wayne Pamajewon, Batchewana Chief Dean Sayers, outside of the teepee on June 4, 2018, the start of the final arguments in the Robinson Huron Treaty Annuities court case. Contributed photo)
When Commissioner William Benjamin Robinson’s treaties were signed in 1850, the average Indigenous person living in one of the Lake Superior or Lake Huron bands should have received an annuity payment of about $1.60.
Back then, that could have easily afforded a bushel of corn, a pound each of pork and plug tobacco at the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Today, under the terms of that same treaty, those band members receive just $4 in annuities – a dollar figure that has not budged since 1874.
Now lawyers representing 21 Anishinabek Nations are in court this week for the final arguments in a landmark case that aims to clarify the interpretation of an “augmentation” clause in the Robinson-Huron Treaty and Robinson Superior Treaty.
“If we’re successful in the courts, it will validate the treaty itself,” said Mike Restoule, chair of the Robinson-Huron Treaty Litigation committee, who has been helping work on this case for 26 years.
In September 2017, the case finally landed in court – first in Thunder Bay and then on to courtrooms throughout the territory over months of testimony.
The closing arguments started in Sudbury on Monday and are expected to last until June 22.
The plaintiffs, who represent 30,000 First Nations people in the Anishinabek territories north of Lake Huron and Lake Superior, argue that the federal and provincial governments have failed to uphold their end of the treaties.
In 1850, after years of negotiations, those First Nations signed on to Commissioner William Benjamin Robinson’s treaties. Their members each received lump payments and were set to receive annuities thereafter.
The treaties state that if the territory is ceded, then the government could “increase the annuity hereby secured to them, then and in that case the same shall be augmented from time to time.”
However, this depended on resource extraction.
“If resource revenues went up, then so too would the annuity payments,” wrote researcher James Morrison, in a 1996 report for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
The position of the Ontario and federal governments is that once the annuities reached $4 per person, the ability for the treaty to ensure the Anishinabek received a “fair and equitable share of the proceeds of the land was wholly exhausted.”
The plaintiffs are seeking clarity on the treaty’s intention and argue the court must choose the meaning that “best reconciles the First Nation interests and those of the Crown.”
While those 30,000 beneficiaries could stand to financially benefit from an increase in annuities, Wikwemikong Chief Duke Peltier said a court win could also ensure the Crown abides by the original principles of the treaty.
“The understanding of our people was that the nation-to-nation relationship that was entered into in September 9 of 1850 was that there would be mutual respect, that there would be mutual benefits and the sharing of the territory as was requested of the Anishinabek peoples that live here,” he said.
A ruling will follow the closing arguments. If a settlement is not reached, then the process will move on to a second phase beginning in the spring of 2019.
Restoule said many people perceive treaties as dead historical documents. He hopes this court case changes that.
“Our position is that this is a living document.”