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Manitoba chief proposes class action against feds over 'effectively worthless' $5 treaty payments

A proposed class-action lawsuit filed by the chief of Waywayseecappo First Nation alleges the Crown breached and continues to breach its obligations under Treaty 4 by keeping $5 annuity payments to treaty members the same since the agreement was first signed in 1874. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
A proposed class-action lawsuit filed by the chief of Waywayseecappo First Nation alleges the Crown breached and continues to breach its obligations under Treaty 4 by keeping $5 annuity payments to treaty members the same since the agreement was first signed in 1874. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

A Manitoba First Nation chief is joining a growing list of Indigenous communities that allege the federal government has violated treaty agreements by not increasing $5 annuity payments to keep up with inflation over the past 150 years.

Waywayseecappo First Nation Chief Murray Clearsky is seeking class-action status for his claim against the federal government, filed with Manitoba Court of King's Bench on Jan. 26.

He alleges the Crown breached and continues to breach its obligations under Treaty 4 by keeping $5 annuity payments to treaty members the same since the agreement was first signed in 1874, "causing the purchasing power of the annuities to dwindle to the point where it became only a token or symbolic sum," the statement of claim says.

In a news release Tuesday, Clearsky said the launch of his proposed class action is "vital in addressing the historical wrongs inflicted upon the Treaty 4 First Nations" and ensure that the Crown's promises to treaty members "are not just made, but honoured."

Clearsky, who would be the lead plaintiff in the proposed class action, aims to represent 33 First Nations in Treaty 4, which spans about 195,000 square kilometres across present-day southeastern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan and west-central Manitoba.

Waywayseecappo First Nation chief Murray Clearsky has been named the new head of the Southern Chiefs Organization.
Waywayseecappo First Nation chief Murray Clearsky has been named the new head of the Southern Chiefs Organization.

Murray Clearsky, shown in a file photo, is the chief of Waywayseecappo First Nation. (Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs)

The suit names the Attorney General of Canada as the defendant.

None of the allegations have been proven in court, and a statement of defence has not been filed.

In a statement sent to CBC News on Wednesday, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said the department is reviewing the statement of claim.

"Canada recognizes that more needs to be done to renew the treaty relationship and remains open to looking at ways to advance this important work," said spokesperson Suzanna Su.

Last year, three other First Nations in Manitoba — Lake Manitoba First Nation in Treaty 2, Fisher River First Nation in Treaty 5 and Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation in Treaty 1 — each filed similar lawsuits.

Other chiefs in Treaty 4 have also filed lawsuits in the Federal Court of Canada.

Canada 'continues to break' treaty promises: suit

The Crown entered into Treaty 4 with various Saulteaux, Cree and other First Nations in 1874, the lawsuit says.

The terms of the treaty included annual payments to all members of the First Nations that signed or adhered to the treaty and their descendants.

The payments were intended to compensate the members of the First Nations for the loss of exclusive use of their territory and to ensure the well-being of future generations.

The amount was set at $5 per member each year, which in 1874 was an amount that "commanded material purchasing power and was not merely a token or symbolic sum," according to the statement of claim.

It says the First Nations were of the understanding that the annuities would reflect the "same degree of purchasing power" as when the treaty was first signed.

"The First Nations parties to Treaty 4 did not and could not have known that the real value of a cash payment of $5 in 1874 would be drastically reduced in real terms with the passage of time," the suit says.

"The parties to Treaty 4 never intended for the annuities to be frozen in time."

The suit alleges that by failing to increase the annuity payments, the federal government has allowed the payments to become "effectively worthless," meaning "Canada has broken, and continues to break, its promise to beneficiaries of Treaty 4."

The proposed class action is seeking $100 million in damages, compensation for "unpaid or underpaid" annuities, and changes to the annuity agreements so that the payments are adjusted regularly, along with other relief.