Fisher River files suit against Crown for ‘breach’ of treaty obligations

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun

A Manitoba First Nation has filed a lawsuit against the federal government alleging annuity payments made to community members for almost 150 years have never been adjusted for inflation and that Treaty 5 members should be compensated.

In a statement of claim filed at the Manitoba Court of King’s Bench on Dec. 12, the Fisher River Cree Nation (FRCN) and lead plaintiff Stefan Lorne Cochrane, a former FRCN chief and band councillor, allege the Crown breached obligations made under Treaty 5, by failing to regularly increase $5 annuities that were agreed to in Treaty 5 in 1875.

FRCN is also seeking to allow all Treaty 5 nations and their members to opt into the lawsuit.

Thirty-six communities belong to Treaty 5, with communities in northern and central Manitoba, eastern Saskatchewan and western Ontario.

When Treaty 5 was signed in 1875, the Crown promised to provide all Treaty 5 members with $5 annuity payments, as well as $25 for chiefs, $15 for band councillors, and $500 for each community annually.

The lawsuit claims that Treaty 5 First Nations saw the promised annuities as something that would annually improve their quality of life and allow members to care for “future generations,” but to this day the amount has never been adjusted, and members still receive just $5 annually through the agreement.

The suit also claims that while the annuity has never gone up, the value of land the federal government claimed through Treaty 5 has risen exponentially.

“Over the same period of time, the value of the land and resources claimed by Canada through Treaty 5 has grown astronomically, yielding billions of dollars in revenue for the benefit of the Crown and settlers,” the suit states.

“No one could have reasonably expected that prices would rapidly rise and the purchasing power of the annuities would fall.”

As of Monday the federal government has not filed a statement of defence.

“Canada was served with this Statement of Claim on December 13, 2023 and is currently reviewing it to determine next steps,” a Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs spokesperson said in a statement Monday to Winnipeg Sun. “As the claim has only very recently been served, we are not in a position to comment further.”

The lawsuit is not the first to be filed by a Manitoba First Nation claiming annuities should have been adjusted since Treaties were signed more than a century ago.

In February, the Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation also sued the federal government seeking $11 billion on behalf of Treaty 1 status members, arguing they’re owed “full and fair” annual payments promised by the Crown.

That lawsuit stems from annuity payments that were originally part of a deal struck in 1871 between the Crown and Treaty One nations that saw $3 payments made to members of those First Nations every year.

In 1874, an amendment was made to the original $3 payment amount, pushing that amount up to $5 per member, but that amount has remained at $5 since 1874.

The statement of claim states the Crown breached its treaty obligations by not enhancing those payments to inflation over time and that Treaty One members are owed “historical damages and interest.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.