For decades, Biigtigong Nishnaabeg Chief Duncan Michano and his fellow community members lived in relative poverty on reserve — without electricity or running water — while the non-Indigenous forestry and mining industries flourished all around them, leaving behind a legacy of pollution in the creeks and rivers throughout their traditional lands as a long-lasting receipt of their presence.
Now 77 years old, Michano says mino-bimaadiziwin — the Anishinaabe term for "the good life" that’s been repeatedly used throughout the ongoing Robinson Superior Treaty court hearing that will determine which Crowns are on the hook for pending increases to annual treaty payments — continues to elude his community of more than 500 people and approximately 1,200 registered band members that’s situated along the Pic River just south of Marathon, Ont.
“The standard of living is still less,” Michano told a Sudbury, Ont. courtroom Tuesday, while testifying during the 14th day of the ongoing trial being held at the University of Sudbury.
While Biigtigong Nishnaabeg is not a signatory to the 1850 Robinson Superior Treaty, its experiences with environmental contamination and disruption of their traditional ways of living through colonization and resource extraction are all-too-familiar tales of inequity in the treaty territory.
Michano recalled two companies — Kimberly Clark Pulp and Paper Company Ltd. in Terrace Bay, Ont. and Ontario Paper Company Ltd. in Heron Bay South — that were built solely to extract lumber and pulp from the area.
He remembered spawning beds for sturgeon on the Pic River being covered in tree bark at one time as a result of logging operations, and industrial runoff being present in nearby creeks and rivers.
Hydroelectricity was generated on the traditional territory; while neighbouring non-Indigenous communities benefited from this, his community did not.
When hydroelectricity came to the area in the 1950s, Michano said it was established solely to assist logging operations at the mouth of Pic River.
“They didn’t run power into our community, that’s for sure,” he said.
The chief told the court Tuesday that resources his community needed to live off the land were compromised; caribou and snowshoe hare were depleted through the establishment of the Canadian Pacific Railway in addition to competition from non-Indigenous hunters. Michano also testified that area fish stocks were destroyed by commercial fishing and invasive species.
Iron, zinc, nickel, copper and lead were also mined from the land as exploration and extraction activities ramped up in the early 1980s, Michano said, in addition to the gold extracted at Hemlo mine.
“Everything for a hundred kilometers was staked up,” Michano recalled, adding that Anishinaabe people never received anything in return for helping non-Indigenous prospectors.
“They didn’t get rich on it, but they found it,” he said of the deposits.
When asked in court what additional resources would have meant for Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, Michano said they would have given his community the capacity to develop business ventures and build up critical infrastructure.
Mino-bimaadiziwn, Michano told the court, means that one has enough resources to provide for their family.
“How do you get there when you’re being suppressed all the time?” he asked.
This week, Superior Court Justice Patricia Hennessy heard testimony from a number of individuals from impacted communities across Robinson Superior Treaty territory, including Elder Raymond Goodchild of Pawgwasheeng Pays Plat First Nation, Michipicoten First Nation Chief Patricia Tangie, Fort William First Nation Councillor Michelle Solomon and Gull Bay First Nation Chief Wilfred King.
In previous court decisions, Hennessy has ruled in favour of signatories to the identical Robinson Huron and Robinson Superior treaties signed in 1850, ruling that increased treaty annuities must provide beneficiaries with a cut of the wealth generated through natural resources in both territories.
Annual treaty payments haven’t increased since 1875, when they were bumped up to $4 per person.