The following is an excerpt from Chief Del Riley’s book the Last President. Click here to order the paperback or a digital download.

In 1972, I started work at the Union of Ontario Indians with no job description, and a general directive of “Go find some land claims, Riley!” from my Uncle Lyle. I began my job at the Union of Ontario Indians as a Land Claims Research worker in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I began from scratch. I had nothing but an empty desk with no files and not much direction. I was thinking, “What the hell did I get myself into? Why did I leave California for this?” The white paint on the walls in my office had dulled, it was a bit dusty, a little musty. After two days making multiple trips to the office’s coffee machine my uncle Lyle stepped into my office and said:

“Riley, this is a reawakening, a new day, a tough task I know you can take on! This is exactly why I wanted you to go to school. This is the job and good pay that I promised: now you will have to go out and make something happen, like you did for yourself in California. This time, a whole lot more people are going to be depending on you.”

“Yeah Uncle, but where should I start?”

Uncle Lyle said,”Work with the reserves requesting help, locate the Reserve General Registrar for the reserve, and check both copies, the reserve copy: and the government copy, we caught those bastards in the past cheating on the paperwork.”

“After I locate both copies and look for discrepancies, do I report back to both the reserve and the UOI?”

“No! After you find a discrepancy – and you will because the government are sneaky bastards – what you do is the second phase of your research. Travel to Toronto or Ottawa to the archives and double check them,” Uncle said.

“Ok, what do I look for in the archives?” I asked Uncle.

“I don’t know, Riley, that is where you come in. Find us something like whether or not there was a payment, see if it was the right amount of land in the transaction, find the evidence we need to go ahead with our land claims,” Uncle said expressively.

Land claims were a pretty new concept in Ontario and across the country in 1972. Although land claims were extensively “discussed,” our people in the past were roadblocked bureaucratically through the Apartheid laws of Canada’s longstanding Indian Act. Later on, I’d discover that my people had been actively pushing for land claims for over 100 years. The year I began working on land claims, we were really coming out of a dark period. 

From 1927 until 1951 the Indian Act officially banned the use of lawyers in pursuit of land claims. The law stated that “Every person who… receives, obtains, solicits or requests from an Indian any payment or contribution or promise of any payment or contribution for the purpose of raising a fund or providing money for the prosecution of any claim which the tribe or band of Indians to which such Indian belongs… shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a penalty not exceeding two hundred dollars and not less than fifty dollars or to imprisonment for any term not exceeding two months.” 

The law also prohibited Indians from participating “in any show, exhibition, performance, stampede or pageant in aboriginal costume without the consent of the Superintendent General or his authorized agent, and any person who induces or employs any Indian to take part in such dance, show exhibition, performance, stampede or pageant, or induces any Indian to leave his reserve or employs any Indian for such a purpose, whether the dance, show, exhibition, stampede or pageant has taken place or not, shall on summary conviction be liable to a penalty not exceeding twenty-five dollars, or to imprisonment for one month, or to both penalty and imprisonment.”

I don’t think most Canadians know these fact. During these dark times, we didn’t stop fighting for our rights, but our progress was intentionally stalled by the Federal government for all First Nations across the country. The government strategy was one of ‘containment’ and control of First Nations people. A lawyer could lose his license by helping Indians, and we weren’t even allowed off the reserve. 

The reserves were set up as concentration camps. The government banned almost every aspect of our economy, and even made it illegal to raise your kids by taking them away. Stealing the remaining portions of prime First Nations lands to launder the title back into the Canadian construct was the cherry on the cake. The government could block our ability to live on our own lands, and even make it illegal to claim our lands back in what they called democratic process and rule of law. When it comes down to it, Canada was never a democratic and peaceful country! This is a myth that Canada has sold to the International community. 

“Holier than thou Canada” opines on other countries’ human rights track record. All while they herded up my people in the 60’s scoop and Indian Residential Schools and turned us into child slaves. The worst part was forcibly removing people from their families based on Canada’s race laws.

Land claims are the result of settler greed. That is the reason I worked at UOI. The government or settlers would see some prime farm lands being farmed by First Nations people, and not long after, First Nations farm lands would be expropriated and European settlers would start farming those lands. First Nations were forced from their traditional homelands, their resources raped by foreign owned corporations while European settlers used words like “legal,” and “rule of law” to legalize the corporate theft of First Nations title. We were treated worse than livestock.

South Africa best described European settler exploitation with a single word, “Apartheid.” It is now acknowledged that South Africa copied Canada’s Indian Act laws some twenty, and even forty years after they were put in place in Canada. The word ‘Apartheid’ and genocide still best describe Canada’s European settler treatment of First Nations people. 

I’m skeptical about calling the process one of “land claims,” because the process has no impartial adjudication process. This means the government can play judge, jury, and executioner throughout the whole land claims process. Land claims involve rights, future rights, sovereignty, natural resources, title, and ownership. The government can stall negotiations for twenty and thirty years at a time for land claims after they are discovered and filed with the Canadian government. It is common for the government to move a First Nations land claim down the list and delay it for any reason whatsoever. It is total control and manipulation with no due process. Some land claims took so long to settle, the Federal negotiators got too old and died off. 

Another problem is that the government itself gets to determine if you even have a valid claim to lands in dispute. Only after the government determines a claim is valid, can land claims negotiations commence. Land claims have no neutral adjudication process. It is completely an internal process set up and dictated by the government, and often run by low level bureaucrats with absolute and unfettered discretion. Essentially, the land claims process is run through a kangaroo court system where the deck is always stacked against First Nations. 

Nobody at UOI knew what to research in the archives at the time, they just knew we had to go to Ottawa and find the files physically. When I visited reserves in need of UOI assistance, I’d start with the reserve copy of the “Reserve General Register.” It was where all of the information on the reserves was kept: treaties, surrenders, right of ways for railroads, hydro lines, or any legal instrument that the First Nations had entered into whether they liked it or not. These documents contained all of the history and dealings with any of the reserves I was dealing with. I was looking for violations of the “Reserve General Register.” Most of the violations would not appear on the “Reserve General Register,”: they would be omitted and these violations would show up when First Nations reported the conflict. I believe this was intentional and a government delay strategy that would be regarded as illegal in an international court.

I would read the First Nations report and compare it with the “Reserve General Register,” looking for discrepancies. On one occasion I discovered that the government had moved Chippewa Trust Fund monies from my reserve to the neighbouring reserve of Oneida. It would be used to pay the Oneida First Nation for the lands they were being removed from. In essence, First Nations trust fund monies were used to pay other neighbouring First Nations communities for compensation the government was responsible for. This is an illegal activity perpetrated by the Federal government, but there was little that could be done about it at the time. As the old saying goes, this was robbing Peter to pay Paul. The trust fund monies were fraudulently moved around and the government never intended to pay them back. Their actions spoke for them. Nor would the government ever justify the theft and fraud to any First Nations. There was zero accountability. The government found ways to manipulate First Nations monies at all levels. 

I spent about a year of my life in the Canadian Archives in Ottawa, Canada. The office of the archives was located next to Parliament Hill. When I was in the archives I came across the “RG10” files from the archives which contained all of the records and reports of Indian Affairs from the time it was being operated by the British military. Some of the documents that I came across included personal diaries, personal reports, legal justice opinions which were no longer secret, and correspondence pertaining to the First Nations reserves that I was dealing with.  

The Canadian Archives contained an abundance of information which had to be researched and this was the main part of my job. I would sift through mountains of information from the “RG10” file – and even discovered Tecumseh’s speech to General Proctor from September 1813. Tecumseh stated “We must compare our father’s conduct to a fat dog, that carries its tail upon its back, but when affrighted, it drops it between its legs and runs off.” When I read information like this it told me of a different version of Canadian history that was not taught in schools. Knowledge is power, and this information was being hidden from the Canadian public and the international community. 

First Nations oral history has always taken the position that First Nations own their own lands and resources. Tecumseh’s speech backs up oral history by asserting to the British that he was willing to fight for his homelands, even when the British abandoned the struggle and General Proctor retreated. The British had left First Nations to secure the borders and defeat the Americans as independent nations. If it hadn’t been for the First Nations, Canada would be part of the mighty United States. I requested a copy of various documents at the Canadian Archives with an archival stamp for authenticity should the document be required in court in the future.  

I was doing research in a day and age that didn’t have cell phones, smart phones, laptop computers, portable hard drives, USB sticks, iPods, internet or emails. I had to put my documents into boxes which would then be loaded into my car, and then physically deliver them to First Nations in person. These were very sensitive documents, they weren’t something I would send by mail for whomever I was doing research for. I made a lot of discoveries. In fact, we did so much research that it resulted in hundreds of land claims having the proper documentary records to go forward.

I ran into a friend of mine who was a WW2 war veteran named Hank Solomon one time while visiting Chippewa. I asked Hank where he was from and he said “Caldwell First Nation!”

I had never heard of Caldwell First Nation.

Hank showed me his status card which stated he was from Caldwell. Hank was a decorated war veteran. He was one of 25 lucky soldiers in his entire battalion to survive a vicious attack by Nazi regime forces in Italy. Hank was always laughing, playful, and he had a very colourful personality. I asked Hank a few questions about his First Nation and decided to follow up by doing some research. 

Hank took me for a drive and introduced me to Chief Carl Johnson who was living in Detroit. The Caldwells had been scattered all over Southern Ontario because they had no land base. However, the Caldwells had kept in contact with each other for generations. They had a structure, a Chief and Council without any government funding. In fact, they were a traditional council who maintained their identity and nationhood.  

What I found out from Chief Carl Johnson was that the Caldwell band had been instrumental in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The Caldwells were involved in many wars and conflicts that would be instrumental in maintaining the intercontinental borderlines. They had always maintained that Pelee Island was their homeland. It  was under the authorization of Caldwell’s Chief and Council that I started the land claim process for them in 1972. Eventually Caldwell First Nation received a large land claim settlement. As was the practice, the government would pay cash in lieu of returning stolen land. Only later I discovered that my mother was also a part of Caldwell First Nation. It was fate that I had the opportunity to work on a successful land claim involving a community which my mother could claim as her own.

Land claims issues consumed me at the Union of Ontario Indians. I made a number of discoveries for my own reserve. One day while I was amassing data and research I came across a word on an index of files. It was just by chance I saw the name “Bear Creek.” I was curious about the name since a section of my reserve was referred to as “Bear Creek.” I wasn’t looking for a Bear Creek land claim, nor was I instructed to research the Bear Creek file. Bear Creek as a word just stuck out at me and I had a curious mind that was integral for this type of work. I opened the file which said “Closed” and found information and documents to establish a legal claim. This land claim was recently settled for over $120 million for my home First Nation of Chippewa of the Thames Unceded Territory.

I was going through so much information and finding so many land claims by accident that when I sifted through some of the material I would discover numerous claims within the same file. My discoveries included cases of monies not being paid to First Nations or monies being transferred out of Trust Accounts and never being repaid by the British/Canadian Crown. The “Crown” is the symbol of the British colonials who were entities in Treaties with various First Nations in North America. The “Crown” in Treaties represented a Queen or King of England. Understanding a Nation to Nation relationship was something I was learning at the archives studying the relationship between the Crown and various First Nations. We were never a conquered people. Only nations can sign treaties, only nations have nationhood and sovereignty and have the ability and right to sign treaties. 

I was researching in the Canadian Archives and came across the name ‘Sir William Johnson.’ He said to the British more than once that the “Indians will not give up their sovereignty if the British want them as allies.” This is a vital piece of history as it shows that since European contact my ancestors always maintained their sovereignty, their national rights, and their territories. This again is something that most Canadians do not know.

The relationship with the Crown was established and preserved in the wampum belts by First Nations. Wampum belts solidified our relationship and the understanding of our relationship as separate nations. 

When I was working for the Union of Ontario Indians, I was finding sovereign First Nations lands all over Ontario which the government took without authorization, payment or agreement. It was astounding and very troubling. These unilateral actions by the government led to monetary claims, or demand for the return of stolen lands no longer under the control of First Nations. It is ironic how First Nations own huge chunks of land which millions of people live on, but don’t collect taxes from it or have the use of the land they own. I was discovering treaty lands were not being paid for, and neither were the natural resources sold by the government or companies derived from our treaty lands. Land claims were piling up on various treaty territories, and I was just hitting the tip of the iceberg. 

My job was really starting to take off and I was enjoying myself while I was working. This was groundbreaking work. I’d keep up on my golf game, find some fast food, and wash it down with a cold beer to start the next day off fresh again. I still owned the pool table wherever I played and even got into a Snooker Tournament in Toronto which lasted six weeks – and I won it! I played against a guy who could run 100 points. In a race to five games, I beat him three straight as he couldn’t play off the rails. I left him sitting on it for the series when he shot. He quickly became flustered and emotion got the best of him. He couldn’t hit a straight-in ball, I laughed to myself. I also think my buoyant care-free personality really grated on him. Part of the edge I was gaining over him was how much fun I had off the table. I could tell he was watching me have fun, cheered by my friends, but I’d get down to business when I played. Winning was something I wanted to do at all times. Winning was something I became used to. I knew I was going to win any time I played. It was that confidence that won me that tournament. 

The year was 1972, and as usual, I was busy at the Union, my desk piled up with work, boxes of documents filling the room wall to wall with research. I was working seven days a week and it wasn’t something I viewed as work. I viewed it as something that had to be done. It was a political priority and I had a great need to find answers. Our organization didn’t have any models to follow, we were really starting from scratch. It was a basic operation to start with the real goal of getting answers to long standing questions being sent to the government by First Nations organizations. My department was land claims, and in the 1970’s, Canadian bureaucracy was starting to develop a policy for land claims settlements. 

The Canadian government knew they had to deal with Land Claims issues at some point. Land claims were starting to pile high and my office was gathering mountains of data and research to support our land claims. Just twenty years earlier in 1951 it was illegal to file for a land claim under the Indian Act. Indian Act law prohibited lawyers from working on land claims over disputed lands and resources. In 1972, we didn’t have much, if any direction on where we should look, or how to start the land claims process. We were all learning on the job at the UOI about the legal processes and mainly how the Canadian government worked – and they did not make it easy. 

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