Indigenous Canadians Challenge an Exclusive American Fishing Camp

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The Innu want the entire river back, all 225 miles. Their effort is part of a movement that is sweeping countries from Australia to Argentina as aboriginals seek to assert what they see as long-ignored rights and correct centuries-old wrongs. In Canada, they have wind in their sails thanks to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise of reconciliation with the country’s indigenous peoples.

The movement has been building in Canada since the 1950s. It got a boost in 2014 with the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark decision establishing title for about 675 square miles of British Columbia forest. Since then, dozens of land claims have been brought.

But the Innu claim is a bit unusual.

Wealthy Americans have long looked north for relaxation in the relative wilds of Canada, particularly along the pristine waterways that run south into the St. Lawrence River. And the land at issue was owned at one point by Ivers Whitney Adams, a Boston twine magnate better known for founding that city’s first professional baseball team, the Red Stockings (now the Atlanta Braves).

In the late 1800s, Adams began buying land on both sides of the river and in the end owned about a four-mile stretch, giving him ownership of not only the land, but also the river bottom, the water that ran through it and the fish in the water at any one time.

In 1875, Adams built a building on one of the banks, which still stands and serves as a communal dining room. He also set up a fishing club, which he incorporated in 1925.


Mike Mckenzie, a representative of the Innu group, with the camp’s manager, Yvan Letourneau, left. The group demanded that the province of Quebec return their ancestral lands, their rights to the river and give them control of the club. Credit Kenny Régis

Other than by deaths, there has been very little turnover in membership in the club — Camp de Pêche de la Rivière Moisie, unofficially Camp Adams — since then. The roster of 10 includes eminent names like Jonathan Winthrop, a direct descendant of John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Gordon Gund, head of the Gund Investment Corporation and an owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team.

Donald C. Christ, 81, the club’s president, is a former senior partner at the white-shoe law firm Sullivan & Cromwell. His father was a New York Supreme Court judge.

The Innu’s traditional territory comprises most of northeastern Quebec and parts of eastern Labrador. “We never gave up our rights, sold our rights or lost a war,” Jean-Claude Therrien Pinette, the director of the land and rights protection office of Uashat Mak Mani-utenam, the Innu community at the mouth of the Moisie River, said in a phone interview.

Consequently, they claim that the Province of Quebec had no right to sell or lease the land that ended up in Adams’s hands.

Mr. Christ contends that “the land was never owned, if you will, in a modern sense by anybody.” He added that the club’s parcel had been acquired from various people, some of whose ancestors received grants of land from kings of France. Challenges to the ownership in the past were finally settled by the privy council of Britain’s House of Lords, he said.

But Mr. Therrien Pinette argues that the Innu claim is not ancient history, saying his grandfather fished and traveled on the river from the mouth to his northern hunting grounds. “My mother was born in 1945,” he said, “and she went to the land by canoe.”

In 1861, local Innu leaders wrote to the colonial government of the time pleading to be allowed to fish in the river. “Can our words enter into your hearts, you that govern?” they asked. “We can no more find our living; our rivers taken from us and only used by strangers. Through your will we can only now look on the waters of the rivers passing without permission to catch a fish.”

Mr. Therrien Pinette said the Innu had petitioned Quebec’s Parliament last year, saying that “you’re not going to make us fish in the worse part of the river while rich Americans come to fish on the best part of the river.”

He said the Innu had asked the province to buy back the land and restore it to their people. “Then, we will welcome the rich Americans who would like to enjoy the beautiful land of my ancestors,” he said.

The province has not responded to the group’s request nor to questions for this article.

For now, Mr. Christ, who has been coming to fish for 37 years, isn’t overly worried. “I don’t think it will bring about any changes,” he said. “There are many places in Canada where people are trying to undo history.”

Correction: June 19, 2017

An earlier version of this article misstated the area of land awarded to the Tsilhqot’in First Nation by the Supreme Court of Canada. It was about 675 square miles, not over 1,700 square miles.

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