Peter Minuit bought New York's Manhattan Island from Indians for 60 guilders in 1626. But in 1805 the British Crown got an even better deal on Toronto: 10 shillings.
Now, nearly 200 years later, descendants of the Indians who sold their traditional lands say they should have gotten a better price. The Mississaugas of the New Credit, a band of 1,500, are seeking retroactive compensation from Ottawa for the Toronto Purchase, a quarter-million acres covering the whole of Toronto and into the suburbs.
This is a country being renegotiated in slow motion. Over the past three decades a string of court decisions here have thundered like an artillery barrage against the status quo.
Last summer, the Squamish Indians settled their claim to some prime real estate in North Vancouver for nearly C$92.5 (US$58) million. Last April, the Nisga'a Treaty gave the band of 5,000 about 770 square miles of land in northern British Columbia, plus cash and benefits worth C$250 million, and the right to self-government.
The Indian Claims Commission, a federal agency, says it is handling roughly 480 land-claims cases. There are dozens more in the courts.
In the case of the Toronto Purchase, the Mississaugas say they were given the short end of the stick in 1787, when a group of British officials met with leaders of the Mississauga Nation at the Bay of Quinte, east of Ontario.
The group evidently discussed, but did not finalize, a transfer of land from the Indians to the Crown. Some 1,700 worth of "trade goods" - blankets, gunpowder, and pots and pans - were distributed to the Indians. Some historians have considered this a payment. But descendants insist these were tokens of appreciation for their support of the British during the American Revolution, not payment for their land.
The following year, a surveyor named Alexander Aitkin began to survey lands by then being construed as having been "purchased" by the British. He quickly discovered that the Indians had a much smaller tract of land in mind than the British. But he was later forced to abandon his unfinished survey when his military escort departed. By 1805, the Crown's conscience was being nagged by the irregularity of the 1787 "sale." Indians by that time were feeling the pressure of displacement as American colonists loyal to the British during the Revolution made their way north, converting the Indians' lands into farms.
As they saw their way of life coming to an end, says Kim Fullerton, the Mississaugas' attorney, they grew desperate. The British prevailed upon them in this weakened state to sign a deed formalizing the transfer of the larger tract for 10 shillings.
"What makes this particularly dastardly is that the Crown representative had two sets of plans," he says, representing the larger and smaller tracts, "but never told the Indians there had been any dispute." The Indians thought they were agreeing on the smaller tract, but the British substituted the larger.
Daniel LaForme, the band's chief, says rectifying the claim has always been on their agenda, ever since they realized, soon after the treaty signing, that they had been taken. "It was just a matter of putting it forward."
Now may be their moment. In the many rulings handed down by courts in the past three decades, federal and provincial governments appear to have a new mandate: Rights granted by treaties, even 200-year-old treaties, must be respected.
But in the face of hundreds of Indian land claims, Canada's federal and provincial governments are seen as being slow to respond to new realities.
Since the 1970s, claims have been resolved at an average rate of 7-1/2 a year - while 60 new claims are filed each year, says Gordon Weber, spokesman for the federal claims commission.
"There hasn't been an adequate government commitment to the process in terms of resources," says Robert Reid, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Ontario who is a mediation adviser to the claims commission.
Meanwhile, some Euro-Canadians resent what they perceive as special deals for First Nations. In British Columbia, where more than C$400 million has been spent on treaty negotiations with at least 51 native communities, treaty rights will likely be a defining issue in upcoming elections.
Some observers say the growing Indian claims issue is a sleeping bear. The more than 480 claims in the works just cover the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. In Quebec and the Atlantic provinces there were "peace and friendship" treaties, but generally no land surrenders.
Fullerton says property rights everywhere could be thrown into question should a court suddenly demand land-surrender treaties. "The 30 years' progress in native law has been phenomenal," he says. "But the government has been like a boxer in the ring that just doesn't see 'em coming."
Ottawa could rule within the coming months on whether it accepts the Mississaugua treaty claim, which would lead to negotiations over the settlement. If it rejects the claim, the Mississaugas could appeal to the federal claims commission or go to court.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor