The Whitefish Lake First Nation is suing Ottawa and Ontario for $550-billion, claiming the dozens of mines that are humming once again in Sudbury are on native land.
Describing the massive price tag as a conservative estimate, the band has filed a claim with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, arguing that surveyors erred in 1885, drawing up the reserve's boundaries in a much more limited way than what was agreed to orally and in writing in the Robinson Huron Treaty 35 years prior.
"I think that there was an effort to ensure that the reserve was as small as possible so that they could take advantage of the resources," said Aaron Detlor, the lawyer representing the band, which is also called Atikameksheng Anishnawbek.
Mr. Detlor said the figure, which is the largest Canadian claim he's ever heard of, is based on years of mining revenue in Sudbury, as well as money from forestry. In explaining why $550-billion is described as a conservative estimate, he points to recent comments in a local newspaper from an area mining executive describing the "trillion-dollar Sudbury basin" as the richest mining district in North America.
Mr. Detlor said the band is willing to drop the suit if it can negotiate a financial arrangement with area companies and the governments.
After years of slow times, Sudbury is booming again as global demand for metals is on the rise. Mr. Detlor said the band is only making its claim now because of new historical information that has come to light.
With a population of just 335 members, according to the 2001 census, the amount translates into $1.64-billion per person, though the community says it has 800 members (which would work out to $687.5-million each).
The lawsuit comes as federal Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl celebrated the fact that the House of Commons gave final and unanimous approval to a new system for resolving the hundreds of specific claims from bands, many of which focus on disputes over reserve boundaries.
One of the contentious parts of the new legislation, which sets up an independent Specific Claims Tribunal, is that it will only apply to claims of $150-million or less. Larger claims, such as the one launched yesterday by Whitefish Lake, must be dealt with directly by cabinet.
The legislation sets aside $250-million per year for 10 years to settle claims.
"At any given time, there are hundreds and hundreds of lawsuits or claims that may be tabled with the federal government. Some of them are legit and some of them aren't," said Mr. Strahl when asked about the $550-billion Whitefish claim.
Mr. Strahl said yesterday that multimillion-dollar claims are in the minority and that the new commission will help resolve land disputes that have tied up some communities for decades.
"This [tribunal]gives them a lot of freedom to do the right thing in a quick manner," he said. "It's good for first nations but it's good for Canada, too, because it gets these behind us in a hurry."