On Friday, Canada's "most militant chief" had much to celebrate.
"For my birthday, I got $80 million for my community," said Roseau River First Nation Chief Terry Nelson, 58.
After nearly 30 years of legal and government battles, the band, 80 kilometres south of Winnipeg, is finally getting paid for reserve land taken away 108 years ago.
"This morning they transferred $80 million in the bank," Nelson said Friday. "Now we're working very hard to ensure the cheques are drawn up." He said they'll start distributing the $5,000 cheques at the Roseau River school gym Wednesday morning.
The $80-million settlement is negotiated compensation for Ottawa unfairly stripping Roseau of 60 per cent of its reserve farmland in the Red River Valley and opening it up for settlers in 1903. Today, the 12 sections of farmland make up the RM of Franklin and part of the RM of Emerson. Negotiations to conclude a settlement began in 2008. Roseau River First Nation members voted earlier this year on the proposed settlement and trust agreement that set out the First Nation's plans to use and manage the settlement money.
After the cheques are issued, legal and bank fees and other costs are factored in there is a balance of $61.6 million in a trust account.
Projected benefits from the interest on the balance of $61.6 million after distributions is expected to generate nearly $600 million over the course of the next 100 years, the First Nation said in a prepared statement.
So far, 650 people have applied for their payment, Nelson said Friday. They have to have documentation like a status card to prove their eligibility, and a commissioner of oaths will be present, he said.
"Workers have been hired to verify everyone on the list." Nelson said he expects there will be 1,500 beneficiaries. They will also sign waivers when they collect their money. "We need to make sure the First Nation is not liable for any impact the beneficiary has in terms of welfare or unemployment insurance," he said. Federal and provincial exemptions have been made so First Nation members on and off the reserve receiving the one-time payment won't have their assistance money clawed back, he said. "The benefit should've occurred in the last 108 years," Nelson said.
"The government should not benefit from its own negligence by taking the (money) away."
The settlement is a turning point for the first nation, he said.
"The biggest benefit is our ability to fix the housing problem," said Nelson. They're developing a "full-blown housing program," he said. The 25-year housing plan includes helping 500 band members buy their own homes, he said.
Forty per cent of the interest from the $61 million capital account will go to housing and help members buy their own homes off the reserve, said Nelson.
"They'll have $20,000 to go get a mortgage for themselves," he said.
"We really want to get out of the Indian Act system," he said. "We want individual rights and individual responsibilities and to be moving away from a public housing system."
They're allocating $250,000 a year for a treaty protection office with a legal staff to pursue other claims, he said. They're also interested in investing in urban reserves.
"They're coming and we don't care who stands in our way."
Nelson, who describes himself as "one of the most militant chiefs," said that approach works. He was the organizer of the "national day of action." The first annual event in 2007 included largely peaceful protests and blockades. Its goal was to make Canadians take notice of issues that have plagued native communities for decades -- outstanding land claims, rampant poverty and substandard housing on reserves. Nelson said Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has listened and acted.
"The Conservatives have responded a helluva lot more than anyone else." Since 2007, Canada has successfully addressed 446 specific claims. "They're on the right track," said Nelson.