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What 'land back' means: Serpent River First Nation chief

Members of Serpent River First Nation are celebrating the return of a piece of waterfront land on Elliot Lake, the community's chief told CTV News in an online interview.

"It's a great first step," said Brent Bissaillion, the First Nation's ogimaa -- the Ojibwe word for elected chief.

"This is a culmination of a long-time coming. We've been working with the City of Elliot Lake on a few projects, such as the Mississaugi Park Foundation and a few other initiatives just, again, to continue to improve our relationship and, again, rebuild our relationship after many years of economic development."

Bissaillion said Elliot Lake used to be his community's home, so it feels like they can finally come back home.


"I think people hear 'land back' and they think 'oh my gosh, where are we going to go if they get the land back?' And it's like 'nowhere. Like we're not going to necessarily kick you out, but we want to be partners. We want to be a part of this," the chief said.

"We want to come home and there are many First Nations communities that sit next to Canadian towns that used to be the home of the community, and so, make some space for us. Let us help you grow and prosper."

Bissaillion said it is not a bad thing when Indigenous people get their land back, they want to see it used to benefit all people.

"We're going to start making our presence known in the city. And we're going to rebuild our relationship not only with you know on a political level but as citizens to citizens. The citizens of our community and citizens of Elliot Lake. So I look forward to this opportunity," he said.

"It's an exciting time for First Nations and I think we're all in this healing mode and you know it's up to those citizens and it's up to these cities … The federal government and the provincial government talk about reconciliation but reconciliation happens on the ground with our neighbours and this is it in action. So it's good."

He credits Elliot Lake Mayor Dan Marchisella for being a willing partner with a reconciliatory voice.

Marchisella told CTV News in an interview Thursday, Elliot Lake city council has been looking at ways of reconciliation for years.

"So, we constantly have land acknowledgement, and that is something we have been doing for many years now ... Words can only go so far. So this was an opportunity for our council to put actions behind their words in recognizing that we’re all treaty people and there is supposed to be sharing of the resources and traditionally, this is the land of the Anishinaabe people," the mayor said.

"The only way to go now is forward and I see a really bright future for both our communities in working together and I look forward to what we can do together, what we can achieve for future years. We’re just getting started."

Marchisella said the property being returned is a former MNR site that was gifted to the city in 2003 that is located on Highway 108 just right next to Elliot Lake's pier and boat launch

"There had been plans on and off on what to do with that property, adding to the tourism base in our community. We've had offers on it in the past, nothing really meets what we'd like to see done there, but being a prime piece of property on the lake, this is something that we figured could be utilized by a growing neighbouring community," he said.

"We know that they have growing pains, as do a lot of municipalities, but they do not have any land to grow on."


"It's really brand new and I know that there's several processes that land transfers can happen on, but you know, we in Serpent River are going to sit down, ask our community 'what do you want up there, first of all,' Bissaillon said.

"And then do some engagement around that land use, but we have some ideas and this is just, hopefully, the first of many land returns so that we can continue to contribute to the economic growth of northern Ontario."


The Serpent River chief said he wants the people of Elliot Lake to know why his community is hesitant to do economic development with the city.

"The Cutler Acid site was in the centre of my community on my traditional powwow grounds. They built an acid plant and then that was in operation producing sulfuric acid and so it contaminated the centre of my community and then in 1969, the military blew it up and it spread debris all across," Bissaillion said.

"And so that's the historical relationship between the mining in Elliot Lake and Serpent River and so we're hesitant sometimes to join in on economic ventures because they haven't worked out for us in the past. They've caused great devastation. We can't really drink out of the Serpent River, it was once the most polluted river and watershed in North America and so these are some legacies that we have to overcome."

Marchisella said since he was elected as the city's mayor, he's been trying to create relationships and partnerships with Serpent River First Nation.

"One of the steps we tried moving forward, again, beyond acknowledgement and words, was at the miner's monument. We had a celebration down there where we put the Serpent River First Nation flag on the property and we did a flag raising ceremony and there were blessings done at the miner's monument and was something that brought both of our communities closer together," he said.

Another step is creating a committee with both Serpent River and Mississaugi First Nations to have year-round operations, increased usage and programming along with outdoor survival training at Mississaugi Provincial Park.

"I think it's a great thing that we're able to be working together using the Seven Grandfather Teachings as our guiding point and looking at how we can partner together in things that we can move forward on together," Marchisella said.

"There's a great understanding that we can't fix what was done in the past but we can create a future for the next seven generations. So that's something that I've heard repeatedly during the meetings, we're thinking about the next seven generations. Not necessarily benefitting us today, but benefitting us tomorrow and our children and our grandchildren and I think that's the most important thing to hold onto."

Bissaillion said they've hit the reset button on the relationship and they are looking to rebuild and grow together.


Serpent River First Nation is partnering with Mississaugi First Nation and family and child agency Nogdawindamin to redevelop an old Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources ranger camp on Mount Lake into a place for families from their communities to reconnect, grow and just to get out on the land.

It is located north of Elliot Lake and Mississaugi Provincial Park.

The land hasn't officially been returned to the First Nation yet, but Bisssaillion said they are working on reclaiming it.

Marchisella said Mount Lake land is not within the city's boundaries and is not involved in the return of that piece.

With files from Ian Campbell, CTV News video journalist in Sudbury. Top Stories

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