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The eastern shore of Lake Huron is renowned for its sunsets.

On a clear day, sunlight sparkles off the water for a few hours before the orange disc turns the sky mauve and dips beneath the horizon.

Mel Parisi, 60, has a front-row seat for the spectacle from the deck of his cottage near Southampton, a three-hour drive northwest of his Burlington home.

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But he is quick to point out that the area offers more than pretty views at dusk.

"This is the last bastion of [cottage]affordability in the province," says Mr. Parisi, president of the Saugeen Cottagers' Association Inc., the umbrella group representing owners of 1,200 cottages in four different "blocks" on native land on the shores of Lake Huron.

In the enclaves on Saugeen First Nation reserves No. 28 and No. 29, cottages are priced low enough to give Muskoka devotees reverse sticker shock. In May, one place sold for $38,500. Others went for $45,000, $56,500 and $88,000.

Even prime lakefront views are cheap on the reserve: A four-bedroom, fully furnished home on a sand beach recently sold for $265,000.

There's a catch. All the cottages are on leased land and the leases expire in 2011.

It's up to the band to decide whether to renew the leases, making the corridor between Sauble Beach and Southampton the next potential hot spot in the sometimes volatile world of recreational property leasing on reserves.

In fact, Saugeen Chief Randall Kahgee, an aboriginal-rights lawyer, says he believes that the band could rake in more cash developing part of its coveted shorefront property, possibly as a resort - which would drive some cottagers off the land.

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"It's one of the most pristine areas in Canada," he says. "We're not getting the maximum value for it at all."

Cottagers in Sauble/Southampton do not have to look far for a cautionary tale: Less than an hour away at Hope Bay, on the Bruce Peninsula, the owners of 68 cottages on a separate reserve were booted from their summer homes 18 months ago, sending a shudder through other cottage communities with native leases.

There are about 3,200 land-lease deals on 22 different reserves in Ontario, from Lake Simcoe to Bala to the Sudbury area. Most of these arrangements work well.

Native bands get a cash infusion from lease and service fees, while cottagers get access to some of the cheapest recreational property in Canada.

But the Hope Bay saga, now the subject of a $50-million lawsuit, coupled with the recent eviction of 33 families from cottages on a reserve near Kenora, illustrates the risks of buying or building a cottage on native land.

"Our families are blown apart," says Barbara Bobo, 59, one of the exiled Hope Bay cottagers. " ... This was [our]spiritual home."

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LAND LEASING IS BIG BUSINESS

The practice of leasing reserve land to non-native cottagers stretches back roughly 40 years, longer on some reserves. Natives vote to designate land to the Crown - a process that used to be called "a conditional surrender" - for recreational leases. Cottagers can buy a building, but not the land beneath it. Instead, they lease reserve plots from the Crown with the understanding that every lease expires on a pre-determined date.

Despite the troubles at Hope Bay, Mr. Parisi and local real-estate agents are confident that all the leases on the Saugeen lands will be renewed before 2011. They say that is because the Saugeen First Nation's cottage operation is too lucrative to shut down.

"This is run as a business," says Jim McLaren, an agent with Wilfred McIntee & Co. real estate, the brokerage that handles the bulk of cottage sales on Saugeen land. "Hope Bay only had about 60 cottages - that's a drop in the bucket."

Indeed, Saugeen's operation, with its 1,200 cottages, is a cash cow compared with the shuttered land-lease business at Hope Bay, which was run by a separate band, the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation.

Cottagers on the Saugeen reserves pay an annual lease fee of $5,000 to $6,600, depending on their proximity to the water, plus a $600 service fee for garbage pickup, road maintenance and other essentials, according to Mr. Parisi.

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If 1,200 cottagers pay an average lease rate of $5,800 a year, that's nearly $7-million. Most goes into a trust fund in Ottawa, which the band can tap for community projects.

Mr. Parisi and Mr. McLaren see the band's sharp business skills as a check against the troubles that touched off the Hope Bay eviction. However, the Saugeen band's business smarts could work against the cottagers if the band opts to develop part of its waterfront land with a venture such as a resort.

"You know the area. It's a tourist market," Chief Kahgee says. "[Is]the band deriving the maximum benefit from that market [by leasing to cottagers]based on other examples out there? The answer is definitely no."

He was reluctant to talk further about developing the land; he didn't want to spook the cottagers and derail 2011 lease negotiations, which are just beginning. Treading delicately in an interview, Chief Kahgee stressed that the band has not launched feasibility studies for any development and he promised ample warning if any cottagers are forced off the land. "That's the whole idea of starting this process now and not later down the road."

Mr. Parisi says he and Chief Kahgee held a "very productive" initial meeting late last week at which the chief promised to hold the necessary designation vote well before the leases expire - a positive sign for the cottagers.

Both sides are approaching the fledgling lease talks with optimism, encouraged that relations between the Saugeen and the cottagers have warmed since the last round of lease negotiations in the early 1990s.

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That time, the band raised lease fees by as much as 300 per cent to better reflect the value of the land, sparking a court battle.

The band prevailed. Some cottagers simply walked away from their buildings.

A CAUTIONARY TALE

Most of the Hope Bay cottagers refuse to abandon their summer homes without a fight. Some won't even leave the inlet north of Wiarton.

A group of nine campers is summering in trailers less than a kilometre down a gravel road from the cottages they were kicked out of at the end of 2006 - even though 18 months have passed since their Chippewa landlords evicted them, and a steel gate (reinforced by a court order) bars them from their waterfront cabins.

"This is the only place I'd spend my summers," says Carol Crockatt from Mississauga, a 59-year-old collections agent who began visiting Hope Bay with her family as a baby.

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Like many Toronto-area residents who flee north on weekends, Ms. Crockatt and her husband, Bill, a 65-year-old retired chemist, loved their Hope Bay refuge for reasons deeper than its clear waters and spectacular views of an opposing cliff face.

The couple's bond with the four-bedroom cottage, which they purchased for $39,000 in 1989, grew stronger as they fixed the place up. They panelled the interior, built a deck, tended a garden. They watched two daughters grow up there.

"I'm sleeping at a different place, but I'm still at the Bay with everybody I know. It's just that our kids won't come up now because they don't want to sleep in a tent or on a table in the trailer."

Ms. Bobo, who is from Ohio, is also clinging to hopes of returning to the Hope Bay cottage she bought in 1997.

When the Chippewas of Nawash asked the Hope Bay cottagers to clear out their property in the dead of winter in early 2007, Ms. Bobo was adamant: "I did not want to take anything out. In fact, I said, 'I'm not taking one teaspoon out of my cottage.' "

But in the end, she and her family panicked, came to Canada and packed up.

Since then, the cottagers have launched their lawsuit, centred largely on the fact that the Chippewas of Nawash are claiming the empty cottages as their own.

The thrust and parry of claims and counterclaims that followed the suit, filed in February, lay bare the messiness of the situation: The cottagers knew that their leases had expired in 1995, yet stayed put; the federal government, which oversees the land-leasing regime, has foisted blame on the band; the band says responsibility lies with Ottawa, which signed the leases.

The expiration of the leases in 1995 is pivotal to the Hope Bay case.

The cottagers should have known they had no right to stay without a formal lease, Ottawa and the band say. The tradeoff for such cheap access to waterfront property was the risk cottagers could be evicted any time after 1995.

Some cottagers admit that they should have been more hard-nosed when Ottawa kept collecting their cheques despite the fact the formal lease had expired.

"We stupidly assumed that there would always be a lease because you bought this building," Ms. Crockatt says. "They're not going to steal this building from you."

Cottagers didn't rush to remove their buildings in 1995 because they were repeatedly promised that a new lease was in the works; in fact, the Chippewas of Nawash tried three times to hold the necessary referendum to renew the leases, but twice not enough band members showed up.

Chief Ralph Akiwenzie, the band council, and their lawyer, Patrick Nadjiwan, all declined to be interviewed for this story.

So the question that most baffles the cottagers remains unanswered: Why, after a third referendum in September, 2005, at which a new lease was finally approved, did the deal fall apart?

"I have no idea. God's honest truth," says Ivan Porter, a 67-year-old Milton resident who bought his cottage with wife, Jean, 69, in 2003 for $89,000.

Even if Chief Akiwenzie were willing to speak publicly about the eviction, he might not have all the answers. That's because in July, 2005, he lost an election to Paul Nadjiwan (a distant cousin of Patrick) after 16 years as chief. Chief Akiwenzie was re-elected last summer. It was during the two-year Nadjiwan interregnum that the lease deal collapsed and the band decided to kick the cottagers out.

The band gives no reason in its court filings for evicting the cottagers; it simply reiterates the fact that the leases ended April 1, 1995.

Paul Nadjiwan, who has since left the reserve, could not be reached.

The Hope Bay cottagers lament the breaking of their bond with the Chippewas. "It comes down to trust," Ms. Bobo says. "There's a lot of people who don't trust the natives. There's a lot of people who don't trust the government. We did. ... We were the optimists."

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