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An abandoned barn stands on land acquired by Pikwàkanagàn’s Limited Partnership. The community is deliberating how to use the fee simple land to expand its equity economic sovereignty.Madeleine Van Clieaf

By the cool water of the Bonnechere River, obscured by bush and an abandoned barn, a plot of land stretches across 170 acres. To some, it’s just an empty lot with maple trees, but to the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation (AOPFN), the land represents an investment in the community’s economic future and self-determination.

Their reserve lies west of Ottawa, near Renfrew County, though their unceded land stretches nine million acres including eastern Ontario and the National Capital Region. For generations, the AOPFN was restrained to 1,800 acres of rocky, unfarmable reserve land. Today, the newly purchased plot is part of the Nation’s plan to develop beyond the reserve’s borders.

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Councillor Don Bilodeau of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation poses in front of the band office.Madeleine Van Clieaf

Recently elected councillor Don Bilodeau previously led the economic project responsible for developing the economy off-reserve.

“This land is very rich in many ways, and beautiful,” Bilodeau says. “Yet we watch all that’s happening around us and none of it comes back this way. It’s a struggle for anyone to give us more. So, we have to buy back the land that we once were the stewards of a couple of hundred years ago.”

Under the Indian Act, community members are unable to own reserve land, as it’s owned by the Crown. A Certificate of Possession (CP) can be granted by a minister to a resident, to prove possession of a plot of reserved land, but the ownership is still retained by the government.

This purchase of off-reserve land makes it possible for the community to own and choose how to use the acreage, without being restricted by the Indian Act. But it’s still unclear exactly how it will be used.

Leveraging a Limited Partnership

The purchase is a small piece of a larger venture: the AOPFN Limited Partnership (LP), a company run in partnership with the community.

In 2020, AOPFN bought two parcels of land through their LP. Council plans on adding one parcel to the reserve; the other lies five minutes away and could be kept “fee simple.”

Unlike reserve land, fee simple land means Pikwàkanagàn’s LP has exclusive rights to and ownership of the property, aside from taxation, debt obligations and local building restrictions.

“With the investment in land, we might be able to have some bank equity, some collateral we can borrow against to invest and grow capital, trying to be smarter and skirt around the Indian Act,” Bilodeau explains.

From her yurt in Pikwàkanagàn, Leah Hinterberger took the helm of the LP last year. She hopes to generate enough revenue to support local businesses, education and youth engagement.

So far, the LP has partnered with renewable energy businesses, maintaining alignment to their ethos of protecting the environment. All funds generated by business ventures go back to the shareholders (the AOPFN).

“The LP has been small. I want to take it to the next level and really start bringing in some funds,” she says.

The company helps AOPFN prove self-determination for ongoing land claim negotiations, Bilodeau explains. He sees the land purchases as just a small part of the economic development created by the LP.

“Our ability to foster partnerships and joint ventures with numerous businesses that are active in that nine-million-acre territory is really something we feel is possible,” Bilodeau says. “The limited partnership, from our perspective, is something that can earn revenue long term for the First Nations.”

Land back, not buy back

Veldon Coburn, a political science professor at McGill University and member of AOPFN, says he has mixed feelings about the purchase.

“We’re buying back our own land, which is a little bit perverse,” Coburn says. “We’re paying the fee to give us our land back, to give us back what was already ours.”

Currently, 36,000 square kilometers of Algonquin unceded territory in Ontario is involved in a land claim over 30 years old. As the only Algonquin reserve in Ontario, Pikwàkanagàn is an important community to the process.

“We were left with something that was woefully inadequate to begin with, and we’re still playing catch up in terms of expanding into something that would be suitable for our needs,” Coburn says.

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The Algonquin claim encompasses 8.9 million acres (36,000 km²), spanning across the majority of eastern Ontario. This claim area includes Algonquin Park and the City of Ottawa. September, 2012.© Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, Government of Canada.

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Existing land and current uses map from AOPFN’s Land Use Plan. August, 2022.© Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation

A vision for the new land

The AOPFN Council has not yet determined how they will use the land they purchased, and community members are divided on the way forward. The Nation is dealing with multiple crises, including housing, health and food insecurity.

Last December, the community declared a state of emergency amid an opioid crisis.

If they don’t use the land for economic development, Bilodeau says they could use the fee simple land to build a treatment centre or incentivize doctors to move nearby.

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The farmhouse is located on the plot of fee simple land. Councillor Bilodeau imagines that the farmhouse could be transformed into a space for rehabilitation or for a doctor to reside in to address the ongoing crisis.Madeleine Van Clieaf

For others, housing is a key issue.

Ryan Peters works the front desk at the Makwa Community Centre and struggled to find housing after finishing college. He says the new land could be a solution.

“It might be good for other people who are looking to come back as well,” Peters says, “if they had housing set up for people to come back and to rent or buy.”

While homes on reserve land can’t be used as collateral to get a loan, Bilodeau explains, you can borrow against fee simple land, making it more enticing for those trying to build wealth or start businesses.

“If my roof needs to be repaired, I have to use cash. The banks won’t loan me money because my house doesn’t have value in their eyes,” he says.

For Bilodeau, the community has to expand beyond the land currently available, through a combination of land claims and buying back.

“We need to invest beyond what’s available now because it’s not good enough. We want to do more for our community in the long term for our youth. That’s our long-term plan to be more self-sustainable and support self-governance,” he says.

Produced in partnership with the Reporting in Indigenous Communities course at Carleton University’s School of Journalism. The writers are students at the school who collaborated with a Globe editor.

One in a regular series of stories. To read more, visit our Indigenous Enterprises section. If you have suggestions for future stories, reach out to

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