The federal and provincial governments currently are in negotiations with five district First Nations to find a resolution pertaining to their flooding and island claims on Rainy Lake.
The negotiation process started in 2009 and its goal is to conclude fair and final settlements that will bring closure to these issues while fostering reconciliation.
“The decision to enter into negotiations for any claim . . . is never taken lightly by the province,” said Ministry of Indigenous Affairs senior negotiator Lise Hansen.
“And we think negotiations is much preferable to litigating,” she added.
“When you're in court, everybody is out to win.”
At the end of August, the provincial government held consultations in Fort Frances, Emo, and Mine Centre to educate residents about the flooding and island claims by Couchiching, Mitaanjigamiing, Naicatchewenin, Nigigoonsiminikaaning, and Seine River.
The claims stem from issues caused by a dam that was built across the upper Rainy River in early 1900 that raised Rainy Lake's water levels by eight-10 feet.
The flooding left much of the shoreline of the nine reserves on Rainy Lake permanently inundated and damaged, with the effects still present today.
“Much of the shoreline of the nine reserves on Rainy Lake has been permanently flooded and damaged, with additional areas subject to ongoing periodic flooding and damage due to weather-related events,” explained Flavia Mussio, senior media relations co-ordinator for the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs.
When the dam was built, it was done without proper authorization and without appropriate compensation, which the provincial government now is trying to reconcile.
The dam-related flooding created islands off the mainland of eight of the nine affected reserves—and these islands have not been recognized as part of the reserves.
Some islands were sold and patented while a majority were included in the Rainy Lake Island Conservation Reserve (RLICR) in 2003.
The RLICR is meant to protect natural and cultural features, maintain biodiversity, and provide opportunities for compatible recreation.
“The boundary of the RLICR will be amended to exclude islands that are confirmed by survey as having been part of the reserves before the dam-related flooding occurred,” Mussio noted.
About 6,527 hectares of land in Rainy Lake is included in the RLICR and the proposed amendment to the boundary of it would reduce its area by less than one percent.
A lack of knowledge around the impact of the dam-related flooding contributed to the provincial government's mistake in claiming these lands.
“They should not have been designated as conservation reserves in 2003 but they were,” Hansen conceded.
The proposal being brought forward by the provincial government for the negotiations looks to amend the RLICR boundary to properly recognize the lands as belonging to the five First Nations.
Mussio indicated the proposed settlements will consist of financial compensation from Canada and Ontario, easement agreements that legalize the continued flooding of reserve lands, and confirmation that islands created from the mainland reserves by dam-related flooding are, in fact, reserve lands.
As well, additional financial compensation will be given from Ontario for islands that cannot be confirmed as reserve lands because they were sold by Ontario to private owners.
Moving forward, the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs will conduct surveys in accordance with instructions issued by Canada in consultation with the First Nations and Ontario to identify the upper and lower extent of the proposed easements.
Once the surveys are available, the province will use them to prepare a final list of reserve lands.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry then will proceed with the formal consultation process to amend the boundary of the RLICR to exclude reserve islands.
“If there are privately-owned islands within the surveyed easement areas, they cannot be confirmed as reserve islands and will remain in private ownership,” Mussio noted.
The surveys are hoped to occur this fall.
“The plan is to get it done this year, amend the boundary in January of 2019, and then all the parties can finish up [negotiating] and sign settlements,” Hansen said.