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First Nations file class action against federal government ;déral

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First Nations from Saskatchewan and Manitoba criticize Ottawa for not having paid the annuities due under Treaty No. 4, signed in 1874. (Archive photo)

The Canadian Press

Lynn Acoose says she is taking the road that the elders and leaders of her community's past have always been reluctant to take.

The chief of the Zagime Anishinabek First Nation, which has numerous communities in southeastern Saskatchewan, has filed a class action suit against the federal government. She criticizes Ottawa for not having paid the annuities due under Treaty No. 4, signed approximately 150 years ago.

Chief Derek Nepinak of the Minegoziibe Anishinabe First Nation in west-central Manitoba is also part of the lawsuit recently filed in Federal Court. Chief Murray Clearsky of the Waywayseecappo First Nation filed a similar class action in the Manitoba Court of King's Bench.

We do one thing that our Elders advised us not to do so, says Ms. Acoose. They do not want the spirit and objective of the treaty to be cast in stone. I feel like I'm taking a big risk, but it's a risk I'm willing to take.

The allegations have not yet been proven in court. The federal government has yet to present its defense.

In September 1874, Canada signed Treaty 4 with Cree and Saulteaux communities in Fort Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan. This allowed the government to use and occupy 195,000 square kilometers of territory that today covers southeastern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan and the west-central Manitoba.

In exchange, Ottawa was to create reserves and pay $750 a year in ammunition and rope. The federal government also had to build a school and transfer tools and other supplies.

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The federal government also had to commit to paying annually and in perpetuity an amount of $5 to each man, woman and child of each of the communities.

The plaintiffs accuse the government of having contravened its obligations by not increasing this amount.

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Long lines in La Fork in Winnipeg for payment of treaty annuities. (Archive photo)

According to them, annuities have never kept pace with inflation. First Nations believe they should have the same purchasing power as 150 years ago.

The plaintiffs allege that the signatories did not know that the real value of the annuities would decrease over time.

This $5 was not a symbolic sum, says Ms. Acoose. Why would we accept this? Our ancestors knew what they were giving.

She says that everyone who participated in the negotiations leading to the treaty knew that the annuities were to allow the members of indigenous communities to purchase goods that would help them survive.

Our legal argument is this: the spirit and purpose of the treaty was for it to remain fair over the years. There is a big difference between what is written in the wording of the treaty and the promises that were made. An oral promise is as good as a legal document.

The plaintiffs are seeking $100 million in punitive damages from the federal government, or such amount as the court deems appropriate. They also demand that the government increase annuities.

The Ministry of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs is aware of the collective actions that have been brought, recognizes a spokesperson. The government is reviewing the documents before making a decision on this.

Canada recognizes that more must be done to renew the treaties. He remains open to exploring ways to advance this important work, reads the written statement.

Last summer, the Canadian and Ontario governments had offered a proposed $10 billion settlement to the First Nations of the Robinson-Huron Treaty signed in 1850.

The government of what was then United Canada, a British colony, had to pay these groups an annual annuity tied to revenues from the natural resources of their territory.

Annuities increased only once in 1875 when they went from $1.70 per person to $4 per person. The amount has remained the same since that time.

Ms. Acoose says her community did not file lawsuits for several years because leaders were hesitant to put treaty rights before the courts.

It's a discussion that has existed for several generations, she says . But we are entering one of the worst periods we have experienced in years economically. We believe that we should not be the poorest population in our own territory.

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