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Supreme Court of Canada hears Ontario's appeal of landmark Robinson Huron treaty annuities case

In a pivotal legal battle that spans over six years, the Robinson-Huron treaty annuities case takes center stage in the Supreme Court of Canada, with hearings scheduled for today and Wednesday. The heart of this landmark case revolves around a promise made to Indigenous communities that annuities would increase in line with the wealth generated from the land.

Since the signing of the Robinson-Huron treaty, the mining, forestry, and fishing industries have raked in billions of dollars in profits. However, payments to the Anishinaabe people have been capped at a meager $4 per person since 1874 and have remained stagnant ever since.

In 2018, Ontario's Superior Court of Justice ruled that the province had an obligation to increase the annuities. Ontario, in response, appealed this decision to the Ontario Court of Appeal, which upheld the lower court's findings in 2021.

The Supreme Court of Canada will scrutinize Stages 1 and 2 of the trial, focusing on the interpretation of the augmentation clause and the Crown's defenses, respectively.

In its factum, Ontario argues that the treaty's wording implies that decisions about annuity increases are at the discretion of the Crown and should not be subject to the court's ruling. The province contends that governments possess the ultimate authority to determine how public resources are allocated, and such matters should not be dictated by the courts.

"Ontario is seeking to argue that the decision is up to them," said David Nahwegahbow, the lead counsel for the Robinson-Huron plaintiffs. "They say it might be reviewable, but the court cannot make the decision or issue an obligation to increase [the annuity]."

Earlier this summer, a proposed $10-billion settlement agreement was reached between the Robinson-Huron Treaty signatories and the federal and provincial governments. It's essential to note that the Supreme Court of Canada's ruling will not affect this settlement, as it primarily addresses past annuities. However, it could have significant implications for future annuities negotiations, which are yet to commence but are at the core of this case.

The Robinson-Huron Treaty Litigation Fund has invited the public to observe the hearing through a live streaming event held at the University of Sudbury on Tuesday and Wednesday.

This case has attracted national attention because it incorporates Anishinaabe law, perspectives, and principles into the judicial process. It delves into the parties' intentions when the treaty was signed, providing a unique and essential perspective on Indigenous law and historic treaties.

Aria Laskin, a lawyer with JFK Law, a firm specializing in Indigenous law, emphasized the significance of the case, stating, "It's a really good example of how historic treaty promises and historic treaties are often not honored by the Crown." While the annuities clause is unique to the Robinson treaties, the ruling will touch upon various aspects of other historic treaties in Canada, such as past and ongoing grievances, the Crown's honor, and the scope of fiduciary duties.

Laskin and Nahwegahbow both assert that this case should be of interest to all Canadians. "It's not just the Anishinaabe that are treaty people," says Nahwegahbow. Laskin further emphasizes that anyone living in Canada with an interest in reconciliation should closely monitor the outcome of the case.

She adds, "Sometimes there's this false dichotomy that's presented between balancing the needs of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, where people are put on different sides of the scale, but everyone has an interest in a fairer and just Canada."

The Supreme Court's ruling on this case will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications for Indigenous rights, treaty obligations, and the pursuit of justice and fairness in Canada. It signifies a critical moment in the ongoing process of reconciliation and the honor of historic agreements with Indigenous peoples.



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