First Nations Seek $100B in Historic Legal Dispute Over Broken Treaty Promise

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A momentous legal dispute is currently unfolding in a Thunder Bay courtroom in northern Ontario. An alliance of First Nations is combating the federal and provincial governments over a claim suggesting they are owed upwards of $100 billion. This is due to the Crown’s alleged failure to uphold a treaty promise made 173 years ago. The government, on the other hand, contends that they owe far less or perhaps nothing at all.

At stake is a substantial historical decision for First Nations representing about 15,000 Anishinaabe people along the northern shores of Lake Superior. Counterarguments and counterclaims currently dominate the courtroom as legal experts and observers keenly monitor the situation.

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The crux of the dispute lies in what the First Nations allege as a broken treaty promise, which has subjected several generations to poverty while non-Indigenous communities flourished from the territory’s resource wealth.

According to Chief Marcus Hardy of the Red Rock First Nation, the case is about correcting past mistakes and ensuring the government’s adherence to agreed-upon treaties.

In 1850, Anishinaabe leaders signed two legally-binding agreements covering territory along the northern shores of Lake Superior and Lake Huron. As part of these agreements, often known as the Robinson-Superior and Robinson-Huron treaties, the Crown had agreed to provide an annual payment to the Anishinaabe, which would increase as resource revenues permitted.

The outstanding annuity was initially pegged at approximately $1.60 per individual, which saw only a single increase to $4 in 1875. The First Nations now argue that they have been short-changed and are owed several billions as arrears.

The potential impact of this ongoing legal skirmish is far-reaching. Not only could it significantly influence other treaty negotiations, but it also establishes pivotal principles for honoring the treaty in the future. Important factors like shared resources and benefit sharing are now at the forefront of discussions around implementing historic treaties.

A previous ruling by Superior Court Justice Patricia Hennessy in 2018 concluded that the Crown had a duty to work with the Anishinaabe to escalate the annuities as economic situations allowed. However, as case progression continues, the judge’s impending decision will have to account and consider resource revenues, shared revenues, liabilities, and interest rates earned over the last 170 years.

How the judge rules and what precedents this case sets up will undeniably influence negotiation tables nationally. However, the government’s position seems to be under scrutiny. Canada’s legal team believes compensation should be between $578 million and $2.45 billion, while Ontario’s lawyers argue that the First Nations are owed nothing or at most $86 million.

As the closing arguments in the case are expected to conclude this month, the direction that the case will take remains mostly speculative.

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