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Indigenous history key part of cannabis trial in Sudbury

The accused say they trace their roots to a long-forgotten First Nation that never signed a treaty with the federal government and so are exempt from its laws

From The Sudbury Star by Harold Carmichael January 19 2024

A long-forgotten First Nation community was once a thriving group that spoke the Algonquain language, unlike the languages other Indigenous groups in the Great Lakes area spoke, the First Nation’s current chief testified in Sudbury on Thursday.

Amikwa Chief Stacy Amikwabi cited Jesuit and other historical records he had come across in researching the Amikwa as proof they were once a distinct group in northeastern Ontario.

Amikwabi said that after he was elected to the Henvey Inlet First Nation band council in 1999, he was researching the Amikwa following mix-ups in his family’s birth and death records.

He was also checking into a land issue involving the band and a railway company when he was given a legal opinion on the land issue.

“The French River Band (also known as Indian Reserve No. 13 and called Pickerel) was extinct,” he testified about that legal opinion. “It was an opinion I could not accept.”

Chief Amikwabi, a defence witness, was testifying in the Superior Court trial of 10 Indigenous Ontarians facing cannabis-related charges laid from 2019 to 2021.

The 10 are expected to argue they are descendants of the Amikwa. Since the Amikwa never signed a treaty or ceded its territory to the federal government, they are also expected to argue they are not bound by Canadian law, including those governing the use and sale of cannabis.

While there is a move underway to recreate the historic northeastern Ontario community, the federal government and other area First Nation communities do not recognize the Amikwa.

Justice Patrick Boucher has ruled that Chief Amikwabi can talk about the facts and historical records he has uncovered in his research into the Amikwa over the past 20 years, he cannot give opinion evidence.

“We’re not offering him up as an elder, but as a person of interest on account of the work he’s done, the work he has done personally, not relying on opinion evidence, not relying on hearsay,” said defence lawyer Michael Swinwood, via Zoom link, before Boucher’s ruling.

Swinwood said Amikwabi’s testimony would assist the court in understanding the NANA (Nation of the Amikwa Nipissing Allies).

“He will be testifying as to the Indigenous side of the equation,” said the lawyer. “Not as an expert witness.”

Swinwood also asked Boucher to consider viewing five videos featuring the late Amikwa elder and spiritual leader William Commanda, who died in 2011.

The trial started Monday but had dealt with legal issues up until Thursday.

On Wednesday, Boucher dismissed a NANA application seeking intervenor status in the trial.

Boucher has yet to rule on an application by the 10 accused seeking funding to cover their legal costs with the court case.

Chief Amikwabi said the Amikwa community in Pickerel is a viable group.

“There is a misnomer,” he said. “The 13th Reserve we speak of is the 13th Reserve described in the Robinson (Huron) Treaty, which it is not,” he said.

Amikwabi said French explorer Samuel de Champlain, in his records dealing with Indigenous people in the Great Lakes area, wrote that he came across three distinct groups – the Cheveux Eleves (High Hairs), Nipissing, and Amikwa.

Champlain, he noted, said the Amikwa spoke Algonquain.

Chief Amikwabi then cited Jesuit records dealing with Indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes area more than 300 years ago, including the Amikwa, whom the Jesuits called the “beaver people.”

He said a Jesuit observed in his records that when Amikwa people died away from home, “the beaver people had to be brought back to beaver country to be buried – to recycle their spirit.”

As well, Amikwabi said the Jesuits noted the Amikwa had a distinct Feast of the Dead celebration and that some Amikwa lived on Manitoulin Island.

The 10 accused include Derek Roque, co-owner of Creator’s Choice Cannabis on the Wahnapitae First Nation in the Greater Sudbury area.

Then 10 have pleaded not guilty to possession of a controlled substance for the purpose of selling and possession of Canadian currency not exceeding $5,000 under the Cannabis Act.

The accused are Indigenous and nine of them owned or worked at cannabis operations in First Nation communities across Ontario without having the required licences or approval from their chiefs and councils.

At issue is their historical right to use and trade cannabis. The charges were laid in the early years of cannabis legalization in Canada.

In the case of Roque, the Ontario Provincial Police and Anishinabek Police Service raided Creator’s Choice on Jan. 3, 2019. He is also facing criminal charges that include obstructing a police officer and assaulting a police officer, which will be dealt with separately from this case.

At the time of the raid, Roque’s supporters said it was his right to sell cannabis and he didn’t need government permission to do so.

The trial continues Friday.

Twitter: @HaroldCarmichae

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