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County supports Bay of Quinte Mohawks’ effort to reclaim Forester’s Island

After 15 years of waiting for answers, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte may be one step closer to re-claiming Forester’s Island.

Forester’s Island – Google photo

In November, Tyendinaga Chief R. Don Maracle sought discussion with council to bring Foresters Island back to the Mohawk Territory.

The island, south of Deseronto in Mohawk’s Bay, in the Bay of Quinte, currently falls within the provincially-mandated jurisdiction of Prince Edward County.

A council-requested report at Thursday’s Committee of the Whole virtual meeting spoke to the repatriation process.

Council agreed to direct staff to write a letter with legal advice to the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte (MBQ) confirming the municipality has no objections to engaging in a long and complicated ‘Addition to Reserve process’.

Councillor Kate MacNaughton noted she did some research into the process she calls a burden on the County’s First Nations neighbour.

“I was astonished by the (federal) process,” she said, noting that owing to its complexity, it would be onerous on municipalities who want to give land back in the spirit of reconciliation.

“It needs to be dealt with. It’s heavy, onerous, arduous and probably racist. I’m sorry we couldn’t do more to help hand the land over.”

The County needs to declare its support of any transfer as part of a multi-step process the Bay of Quinte Mohawks must undertake. It cannot simply make a decision to give back the land.

“Historical evidence strongly suggests that the island should be in the jurisdiction of the MBQ, and the muncipality could assist in its transfer by co-operating with the MBQ in the Addition to Reserve,” stated Noah Lister-Stevens, programs analyst in the report.

Today, Forester’s Island remains as two plots of land – one square plot on the north side owned by a County resident and the remainder of the island still owned by the Independent Order of Foresters (IOF) since rebranded as Forester’s Financial, a Toronto-based insurance company).

“Importantly though, the island has been treated as a part of Sophiasburgh ward for administrative tax collection purposes, which has perpetuated the belief that the island is in the legal jurisdiction of the municipality,” states Lister-Stevens. “The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte contend that the island has always been in their jurisdiction as a part of Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. The IOF agrees with the MBQ interpretation, having ceremonially transferred their portion of the Island over to the MBQ in 2005.”

Lister-Stevens says regardless of who the land was originally granted to, multiple sources (Shannon Bernard, Indigenous Services Canada; Stephanie Thiel, Ministry of Indigenous Affairs) within the federal government have said that the only way to transfer land (traditionally) to indigenous people is via an Addition to Reserve (ATR) process, through the federal Ministry of Indigenous Affairs.

“This process would involve the municipality formally transferring the island to the Crown, which would then add it to the existing Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. The island property owners would also have to assent to the transfer of their lands to the Crown, and by proxy into the Tyendinaga territory.”

Lister-Stevens notes the application process is long, complicated and includes several phases of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada working with the local indigenous community to create a proposal for the expansion of indigenous territory.

“In general, the proposal must demonstrate that the positives outweigh the negatives of the Crown acquiring the land for the purposes of a reserve. Initiating this process must fall to the First Nation (which the MBQ attempted to do in the early 2000s but there are now answers as to specifically why the attempt failed).

There are several criteria to move forward, including no significant environmental concerns; best efforts to address concerns of municipal, provincial or territorial governments; the proposal is cost-effective and any necessary funding has been identified within budgets; third-party issues such as leases and licenses have been identified and address and that public access concerns have been addressed.

The municipality loses $7,310 in annual property tax revenue. The MBQ would pay costs for the Addition to Reserve application, as well as associated legal fees required for submitting it to Indigenous & Northern Affairs Canada.

The island was granted to Capt. Deseronto (or Deserontyou “where the lightning strikes”) as a reward for services to the Crown, although it was not dated until April 1st, 1793. The island was, for many years, known as “Captain John’s Island”.

The island was also a summer home to one of Tyendinaga’s most famous Mohawks, Dr. Oronhyatekha (1841-1907), who Maracle notes was one of the first Indigenous persons in Canada to train as a physician and was a person of great renown around the world.

Dr. Oronhyatekha, seated outside the Isle Hotel on Foresters’ Island. – Photo Deseronto Archives

“Dr. Oronhyatekha had a home in Tyendinaga and built many properties on the island, including an elaborate summer residence, a hotel, gardens and an orphanage. He died in 1907 and is buried at Christ Church, Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal of the Mohawks, in our Territory. How the island was lot from the community in the years that followed Dr. Oronhyatekha’s death is not known,” stated Maracle.

The doctor became involved in the Independent Order of Foresters, later becoming its Supreme Chief Ranger in 1881.

The Castle home of the late Dr. Oronhyatekha. – Photo Deseronto Archives

He donated land for an orphanage able to house 250 children, which opened on Aug. 6th, 1905. It was only in operation for 18 months, closing in 1907, in debt, the year of Oronhyatekha’s death.

It is believed the buildings were dismantled in the early years of the 20th century and ownership was transferred to the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. There are also later reports of the Tyendinaga Band Council seeking to have the small island transferred to the reserve.


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  1. kb says:

    In light of the travesties our First Nations people have endured, this is the right decision. Give them back Forester’s Island. Someday I hope the history books are rewritten, to identify and open discussion about how a culture was nearly erased.

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