By Scott Dunn, Sun Times, Owen Sound
SAUGEEN FIRST NATION - Saugeen First Nation Chief Vernon Roote said there's no plan to charge a beach access fee, or allow regular on-beach parking and he sees no rush for South Bruce Peninsula council to decide on the recently disclosed settlement proposal which would end a longstanding lawsuit over a northern section of the beach at Sauble.
Roote spoke in an interview at Saturday's 43rd annual Competitional Powwow in his community at the James Mason Centre. Colourfully costumed dancers in feathers and jangles danced to pounding, rhythmic drumming and singing while he discussed the settlement and its context.
Details of the settlement, mediated by retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Ian Binnie, were shared recently at a Saugeen community meeting which drew more than 100 members, Roote said. South Bruce Peninsula held its own meetings last week to inform the public.
If approved by the federal, provincial and South Bruce Peninsula governments and by Saugeen, the deal would assure public access to the beach as enjoyed now, the town's lawyer said at the public meetings. But the beach would belong to Saugeen First Nation, managed by a management board with equal representation by the town and Saugeen.
The town would receive $5 million from federal and provincial coffers to pay for beach management under the proposal. Saugeen's proposed compensation for loss of use of the beach hasn't been disclosed.
“The people are happy here at Saugeen,” Roote said when asked how the band's meeting went. “It's a longstanding issue for us. It's almost over a hundred years, eh? And all it is really (is) a misinterpretation of perhaps a line or ownership, (people) got a lot of assumptions over the years, people assuming they own land when they didn't.”
“The facts speak for themselves, now. And in order for me to be heard years ago, I had to provide facts. We've provided them. And now that time has come and one would say justice is being . . . slowly coming back.”
The federal government brought a lawsuit on behalf of the Saugeen First Nation against the former Amabel Township in 1990, later to be brought by the band itself, claiming about 2.4 kilometres of beach at Sauble Beach was promised.
The claim hinges on an 1854 survey map and notes of Charles Rankin, which show the northern boundary of the reserve should be at 6th St. to the north by the washroom buildings, not at the foot of the main street as it has been since before living memory. That and other evidence was presented at the public meetings.
Roote, 65, is a long-time political leader of the community. He was returned as chief in June after eight years on council, a period in which Randall Kahgee was chief. Kahgee didn't run in the June election.
Roote was first elected chief in 1975, then was chosen again in 1985 after Chief James Mason died. In 1991 he was deputy Grand Chief, later Grand Chief of the Union of Ontario Indians, an association of 43 chiefs dealing with self-government issues, in North Bay. He became Saugeen's chief again in 2004.
He said he was given a “side job” as lease manager for the band in 1970 to look into the beach boundary issue, so to see the deal coming close to an apparent end is satisfying for him personally.
He sat in a chair and talked amiably outside the Mason Centre, where he answered questions about the Sauble Beach land claim settlement proposal and accepted an ice cream from someone as he spoke.
Saugeen charges for cars to enter and park on the beach south of main street, which is reserve land. Walk-ons are charged $3.
This year SBP removed controversial parking meters, which amounted to a fee to access the north beach. Would Saugeen also charge for users of the beach to the north?
“I don't think so. Not at this time. See right now, people are enjoying the public access and we're good hosts or good neighbours,” Roote said. Enforcing a walk-on fee would be “chaos,” Roote said.
Details of the settlement proposal allows for a “reasonable access fee . . . if one is deemed necessary for effective management of the beach,” said South Bruce Peninsula's lawyer Greg Stewart, who helped craft this mediated settlement proposal, at the Wiarton public meeting last week.
No beach access fees could be charged unless the councils of SFN and SBP agreed, Stewart said. And if a fee inhibited pubic access “there wouldn't be a fee,” Stewart said. His view was any fee would inhibit access.
But Stewart also said that if there were some natural disaster which required a fee to restore the beach, a fee would be justified under the agreement proposed.
No cars are allowed to park on most of the northerly section of beach now. (A few lots are privately owned and parking is permitted on at least one of them. Those properties aren't covered by the settlement proposal and so must resolve their disputes with the claim separately.)
But Roote said no cars would be allowed to park regularly on the northern section of beach under Saugeen ownership. “No, because you'd have to have tow trucks every 500 feet,” he's said with a laugh. “The strip is narrower, you haven't got room for any amount of cars. It's not logical.”
During and since the public meetings, South Bruce Peninsula has been urged to slow down and provide more information before deciding whether to support the settlement proposal. SBP Mayor John Close has said there's no rush, yet the town set an Aug. 21 deadline for written comments from the public.
Asked if it matters to him if SBP puts off the decision until after the coming municipal elections if needed, Roote said: “I don't really think a date matters at this point. That's almost like just a side discussion topic that, really. An agreement is on hand for people to look at. We've had lots of municipalities with lots of politicians go under the bridge.”