The negotiations surrounding the former Crespieul reserve of the Abenakis of Odanak and Wôlinak took place in a climate of cooperation, which allowed this claim to be settled within a few years and to everyone's satisfaction.
The Abenaki Nation is established on 2 reserves, Odanak and Wôlinak, both located on the South shore of the St Lawrence River, near Pierreville and Bécancour. At the end of the 19th century, the government gave the Abenakis another reserve: Crespieul.
The reserve of Crespieul was 8,350 acres of land that had been set aside by Indian Affairs in 1851.
The land was too far away; it was 400 kilometres from Odanak. Back in 1894, 400 km was far, and the land was hard to get to. The problem was that the Abenakis could not monitor that land.
Reports started to come in that the timber was being pillaged, that commercial timber was being taken from the reserve.
The Department's response was that the land should be surrendered for auction, and the proceeds would be shared between the two communities.
In fact, the government should have considered the option of keeping the land on behalf of the Abenakis and marketing the timber commercially.
This was not done, and this was where the Department failed in its fiduciary obligations. The surrender should never have taken place.
In 1996, under Canada's Specific Claim Policy, the two Abenaki communities filed a joint request aiming to finally settle the Crespieul Reserve case.
Then we started doing research. We went to archives centers and libraries. We looked everywhere there might be information on Crespieul, gathered everything and put together a data base from which we built a history report.
We reviewed what the First Nation had found, the historical research, the allegations that were provided, and we did our own historical research and we did some legal review to see if the government had not met its legal or fiduciary obligations. The government is in a position to acknowledge mistakes, sit down with a First Nation and correct the mistakes.
We agreed from the outset on the terms of reference both our technical experts and theirs at Public Works Canada. Agreeing on what could have been done at Crespieul makes the remaining negotiations easier."
They came to a final deal, and there was a certain amount of money set aside for the 2 communities that were involved.
In 2007, after only 4 years of negotiations, the two parties agreed that the Abenakis would permanently give up their rights to the Crespieul territory, in exchange for a net compensation of 4.5 million dollars. But in order for the agreement to be ratified, it had to be submitted to the Abenaki Nation by way of referendum.
The demographics of Odanak show that eight out of ten voters live off the reserve.
At Wôlinak, the total population is 400, with perhaps 120 on the reserve. The majority live off the reserve nearby Trois-Rivières, Quebec City, Montreal…But we have people living pretty far.
So we informed everyone on the procedure and the whole agreement, and then we proceeded with the referendum.
The settlement agreement is a landmark for the Abenakis. They now know what it is like to negotiate a specific claim.
Throughout the negotiations, there was a spirit of co-operation, really intent on settling the claim through discussion.
I think the other communities can find inspiration in what we did, and see that it is possible to reach an agreement in which both parties are satisfied.
They've been waiting since 1910 to see this mistake recognized and resolved, and it has given us an opportunity to settle the matter once and for all.
With the agreement ratified, the case is finally closed. The Abenakis now have to determine how the two communities will benefit from the money received.
We need to be very wise, we need to take our time. We need to think and we need to use that money wisely. The rest will come together, you know. We're looking at building a school in our community…all these type of things will slowly come.
We can't change the past. We can't argue about what our ancestors might have done, whether there were mistakes made or mistakes not made. All we can do is try not to make mistakes today, for the future of our children and the future generations.