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Court of Appeals rules in favour of Whitefish Lake First Nation

by November 13, 2007
 

A couple weeks ago, the Ontario Court of Appeals ruled that the Indigenous Community of Whitefish Lake (WLFN), who had their timber rights sold by the Crown for $316 in 1886, is now entitled to millions of dollars in compensation.

The three-judge panel concluded (pdf) that "the Crown breached its fiduciary duty to the Whitefish Lake Band of Indians 120 years ago" and is now owed equitable compensation for its breach.

In 1885, the Crown decided to sell the timber rights to 79 square miles at a price of $4 a square mile. Less than a year later, the land was privately sold to Honoré Robillard, a Conservative member of the Ontario Provincial Legislature, and Joseph Riopelle, head of a well-known lumbering firm. Ten months later, the men turned around and sold the timber rights themselves, for a value estimated as high as $50,000.

Last year, a Superior Court trial judge assigned the WLFN $31,600 for the timber rights (the estimated value of the land in 1886), adding that they should also receive an additional $1,095,888 in compensation, taking into account inflation and interest for a portion of the period in question.

The panel ruled the $31,600 should stand, but the recommended compensation was too low because the Judge erred by failing to account for the money that would have been earned through the Whitefish trust account, within which the government was obligated to invest 70% of the money received from the (legal) sale.

An expert for the WLFN assessed the compensation in 2005 should be approximately $23 million.

The panel did not make a ruling on that number, but instead sent the case back to a trial judge to arrive at a fair amount of compensation.

Valarie Edwards, a lawyer for Whitefish, said the band is "absolutely delighted with the result."

"The court has clearly said that the band is entitled to equitable compensation for their loss of the use of the money for the last 120 years."

Valarie went on to say that instead of heading back to court, the WLFN wants the federal government to sit down and negotiate in good faith. "Whitefish has waited 120 years. It should not have to wait any longer."

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