This beach has a rightful owner

According to the Sauble Beach tourist information website, the Ontario community’s first settler was John Eldridge, who built a cottage nearby in 1877.

After Eldridge showed up on the pristine shores of Lake Huron, the story goes, a “number of people followed and Sauble Beach began to grow steadily to become the community it is today.”

Oh, really?

The Chippewas of Saugeen First Nation, who have inhabited the land for millennia and who have long worked to assert legal ownership of it, have something to say about the idea, all too common among colonizers, that history starts with colonization.

For nearly 30 years, the Saugeen have fought to reclaim a two-kilometre stretch of beach from the town of South Bruce Peninsula. Strides toward a settlement having hit a dead end, the community is now taking the matter to court.

Saugeen will argue that, according to an 1854 treaty between itself and the Crown, the beach is part of the reserve. The land, after all, was never surrendered.

Strangely, Ottawa, so often the antagonist in land disputes, agrees with the Saugeen assessment. In fact, the government feels so strongly about it, that it began the legal fight on the community’s behalf back in 1990.

“But that still isn’t enough for some of these people,” Saugeen Chief Lester Anoquot told me.

So now, the Saugeen community has to take a more aggressive approach “towards righting a wrong that is older than Canada.”

Janice Jackson, mayor of the town of South Bruce Peninsula, who ran on a platform of rejecting a settlement with Saugeen, wrote in an email that South Bruce has a “strong case with a brilliant legal team.”

The town interprets the boundaries of the treaty differently than do Ottawa and Saugeen. The court, which begins preliminary proceedings on Sept. 2, will decide.

It should never have come to this.

“We are simply seeking recognition of what belongs to us and has, in fact, always been ours,” Anoquot says.

“The biggest thing is the disrespect of the treaty,” explains Saugeen’s lawyer, Nuri Frame.

“The disrespect of the land that was theirs and that their vast traditional territory was carved back … and opened up to non-Indigenous settlement again and again.”

It’s left an open wound in the community. This type of wound has been caused by land disputes across Canada.

Anoquot believes a settlement could have been achieved if South Bruce had acted in good faith. He is profoundly disappointed that, in his view, the town is unwilling to be a good neighbour after all this time.

The chief said he has made it more than clear that they would not remove those who are leasing the land now, that Saugeen is a “tourist-oriented community” that already has a profitable cottage-leasing program on their land.

“We are in the business of tourism.”

But how can you teach friendship?

How can you teach those in denial that people’s long presence on the land confers rights upon their ancestors?

While the courts have been clear on this, Canadians seem less so.

“I am very disappointed the chief has made such disparaging remarks,” Mayor Jackson said.

“Just because he claims our beach belongs to his band doesn’t mean we should simply hand over the keys.”

But Ottawa and Saugeen agree the keys have never been hers to hand over.

Tanya Talaga is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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