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Big Grassy celebrates land claim settlement

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A special celebration was held last Wednesday and Thursday at Big Grassy First Nation to mark the long-awaited land claim settlement involving the bridge over the Big Grassy River.

Festivities included a hoop dancer, a drum ceremony, outdoor activities, a fish fry, and fireworks.

Community members also were honoured with special awards.

“This is a demonstration of what we can achieve . . . the land under the water is property of the First Nations people and they never gave it up,” said Treaty #3 Grand Chief Leon Jourdain.

“If we are going to talk partnerships, it has to be equal. The status quo cannot be applied,” he stressed.

Big Grassy Chief Glen Archie credited the elders of the community for spearheading the land claim, making special mention of the late Moses Tom and Fred Copenace.

At issue was the original treaty signed in 1873, which stated the Big Grassy River was part of the reserve. But in the early part of the 20th century, the Ontario and Canadian governments informed the band the land was being turned over to the province.

In the late 1970s, community elders began pursuing its return to the community. Archie credited Copenace for doing a lot of the research necessary to prove the community owned the land.

The issue came to a head in 1995 when the band was informed by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation that an engineer was coming to assess the bridge over the Big Grassy River

Chief Archie, who was first elected to the band council that year at age 28, happened to be the only councillor in the community at the time, and he rallied band members to stage a peaceful protest on the bridge to keep the engineer away from it.

“That got the government’s attention,” he said.

Holding the bridge as a trump card so to speak, the band forced the governments to the table to talk. Chief Archie said the most frustrating experience they faced in negotiating was the change in governments and the lack of power government negotiators had to make decisions.

But as time passed, things slowly crept towards the current outcome.

The Big Grassy River has been re-recognized as part of the reserve and the community received a $2 million cash settlement.

“The money is secondary,” Chief Archie stressed, noting the land is very important to the community.

The money has been put into a trust fund, and Chief Archie is determined all 550 members of the band will benefit from it—including the 60 percent who live off-reserve.

He said they fought hard in the negotiations to include the benefits to the off-reserve members as well as those living there.

In the five years since the demonstration at the bridge, Chief Archie said there’s been a real positive outlook in the community. A new elementary school was built, as was a water treatment plant and nine CMHC housing units.

So what lies ahead? Chief Archie said now that the signed agreement is in place, the next step is to implement it. He said most land claims take three or more years to fully put in place but his hopes are that it will only take two years for this one.

He also said the band hopes to get more housing from the government. At present, they can only get two homes per year from the Department of Indian Affairs.

“Many of our people would like to move home but there is no housing,” Chief Archie said.

Meanwhile, with the final settlement of the claim in place, construction on the bridge over the Big Grassy is well underway. MTO officials at the celebration Wednesday said it looks like it will be completed this year.

The settlement gives MTO the right to build, operate, and maintain the bridge, and gives all people navigational and fishing and hunting rights on the river.

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