Litigation over Point Park could soon be a topic of the past with both town council and Agency One bands optimistic about a positive working relationship going forward.
The town's First Nations Relations Committee has been meeting with Couchiching FN Chief Brian Perrault, Mitaanjigamiing FN Chief Janice Henderson, Naicatchewenin FN Chief Wayne Smith, and Nigigoonsiminikaaning FN Chief Will Windigo over the past four months to strengthen their relationship and find ways of working together.
“I'm feeling that there is a good degree of trust that's been established at the table and both sides are dealing with one another in good faith, in honesty, and openness,” remarked Coun. Andrew Hallikas, who sits on the First Nations Relations Committee along with Mayor June Caul and Coun. Douglas Judson.
“We were able to discuss issues that are fairly sensitive without anybody pointing figures or assigning blame,” he added.
Coun. Hallikas noted that both parties want to stop litigation over Agency One lands as it is very expensive and has been going on for over two decades.
“We've been meeting elected official to elected official and exploring the points of view of both sides,” he said.
“What I've seen personally is there is a real will to work cooperatively,” Coun. Hallikas added.
“I think that we're going to get a good result because of the rapport and the relationship that's been built.”
Through the meetings with the First Nations Relations Committee, a Declaration of Intent and Friendship has been drafted.
The declaration lays out a working partnership between the Agency One bands and the town.
“I'm actually very excited about it, I think it's a really good first step for our First Nations friends and neighbours and for the citizens of the Town of Fort Frances,” Coun. Hallikas enthused.
“The litigation has been dragging on since the '90s, so I think most of the people in Fort Frances would like to see a win-win situation and I think we're heading in that direction,” he added.
The declaration will be finalized and signed by the four chiefs and Mayor Caul at Point Park next Wednesday (May 1) at noon. The public is welcome to attend.
“We thought the most fitting place to have it would be at the Point,” Mayor Caul remarked.
“There will be some speeches and we'll officially sign the deceleration with the public there," she said. ”We're hoping lots of the public can come out to witness it.
“It will be the beginning of a great new relationship,” Mayor Caul added.
The document itself, which will be released next Wednesday, tells a general history of what's happened with First Nations people here, a history of the town, and outlines a partnership between the Agency One bands and Town of Fort Frances.
“We want to work together in partnership to come up with suggestions, to come up with ideas, and come up with plans to work together on procuring anything that we can in a positive way,” Mayor Caul said.
"We plan to work together and try to find ways to bring the Point Park back to the vitality it was when I was a little girl.
“It was always used by families and it was beautiful down there and it's kind of been left by the wayside for the most part for many years because of the litigation that's gone on,” she added.
“Our plan is to develop that whole area with our neighbours so it meets everybody's needs and everybody can feel like it belongs to them and not just one group of people.”
Although getting there might be an uphill battle, according to Mayor Caul.
She said she's unsure of how the government of Canada and Ontario will respond to the partnership because, to her knowledge, it might be the first of its kind.
“I'm thinking we might be breaking ground here,” Mayor Caul enthused.
Though she is hopeful that the federal and provincial governments will have a positive response to the declaration and partnership going forward as it is in line with reconciliation.
Following the signing of the declaration both the Agency One bands and the town plan to negotiate and make arrangements outside of court.
“We were all very hopeful from both sides that we will be able to leave any differences behind and work collaboratively to make this community and our neioghbouring communities work more as partners to revitalize the area together,” Mayor Caul remarked.
Coun. Judson said this is a “milestone” in the effort to work towards a resolution around the Point Park property.
“After decades of uncertainty and significant expense, our council is moving forward to a new chapter in our relationship with the Agency One First Nations—one based on friendship, committed to truth and reconciliation, and driven by shared goals and aspirations,” he said.
“That is what our community expects of its leaders, at all levels of government — and that is what we are working toward, together with our neighbours.”
While both parties are happy to sign the declaration and try to deal with all outstanding litigation outside of court, the document is also focused on fostering a more collaborative relationship between the four First Nations and the town.
“These are our friends and our neighbours and we want to work with them going forward,” Coun. Hallikas remarked.
“We're looking at it as a cooperative partnership that's not just for one thing, not just to deal with the outstanding litigation, but to move forward together in partnership and work together economically for the good of all.”
It could be a lengthy road ahead to finally settle all of the negotiations, but Coun. Hallikas said they aren't going to rush it and will focus on doing it right.
Going forward he would like to work with First Nations on applications for grants from the government and other projects that benefit everyone living in this area.
He has enjoyed working with the chiefs of Couchiching, Mitaanjigamiing, Naicatchewenin, and Nigigoonsiminikaaning and looks forward to continuing their relationship into the future.
“I think they're really a dedicated group of individuals that want the best for their people as we want the best for the people in Fort Frances,” Coun. Hallikas remarked.
“But ultimately we're all brothers and sisters, friends, and neighbours and so if we can come together to a meeting of the minds, it's going to benefit everybody.”
None of the four chiefs could be reached for comment prior to press time today.