Indigenous people frustrated buying back land

The Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation in Port Perry. Photo credit: Brittany Hebelka

Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation (MSIFN) near Port Perry would like to grow. About 15 years ago it purchased land that would expand it by 32 acres or about 13 hectares. However, this land only recently became part of the reserve.

That’s because it had to go through a process known as Addition to Reserve (ATR). ATR is the process by which a reserve buys property within its treaty area to extend its land. It’s similar to buying a house but for some reserves this process can take years.

The length of time is subject to many variables, including whether the land is considered federal or provincial Crown land, or if the land is privately owned.

According to Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC), as of February 2017 there were 89 open ATR files in Ontario. Since 2000, the department has closed 29 files.

Reserves add to their land for many reasons: economic development, access to resources, expansion, or Indian Act obligations..

During the ATR process, no members can reside on the newly purchased land. The reserve must also pay bills on the property such as hydro and taxes.

“When a First Nation buys a piece of property, they assume all the liability, all the risk, just like any other landowner,” said Dave Mowat, lands supervisor for MSIFN.

Mowat said land for reserves is purchased the same way anyone else would buy it but that’s where the similarities end.

“The way the land is held is different,” Mowat explained. “The land has to be held in trust because we don’t own our land legally. It is held in trust with the use and benefit of say, Scugog, but it is held in trust by her Majesty the Queen.”

The ATR process went through significant changes in 2012. The changes include the department in Ottawa having a less significant role in the process and increasing the regional office’s role.

CIRNAC says it has to consider the environment, legal issues, government policy, and the Indigenous community.

MSIFN went through the ATR process to get the additional 13 hectares of land as well as mineral and mine use.

Since the revised Williams Treaty was settled in June of 2018, MSIFN has more rights to extend its territory.

“Williams Treaty gives a legal entitlement to 11,000 acres per First Nation that we can add to the reserve,” Mowat said, “and if that process takes 20-30 years the Crown understands that it’s not going to happen fast. So, that’s huge advancement in my view.”

With expanded land and more rights to soil, MSIFN will be able to expand the community and its economic development.

Scugog is building an addition onto the Blue Heron Casino as well as a hotel. It is also adding a pond with waterlines currently going into the ground.

Over the past year, Scugog has undergone several additions, including a new gas station and Tim Hortons, located directly across the street from the casino.

Reserves across Canada have been finding ways to employ members by expanding reserves. Expansion makes it possible for them to build commercially, creating jobs for members.

“That’s the problem with the ATR process,” said Mowat. “Say, if you had a business proposal that you would like to utilize a piece of land for, the ATR process is not really conducive to that.”

There is no word on when MSIFN will move onto the new land.