Ontario judge rules stretch of Sauble Beach belongs to Saugeen First Nation

Land Dispute Case Photo by Shutterstock/Pictureguy

Sauble Beach, a sandy stretch of land parked on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, is the second longest freshwater beach in the world—behind Wasaga Beach, near Collingwood. Eleven kilometres in length, Sauble’s shallow waters and powdery sand attract millions of beachgoers each year. But the beach’s ownership has long been a point of contention, until now.

On April 3, an Ontario judge ruled that the Saugeen First Nation are the rightful owners of a 2.4-kilometre section of Sauble Beach. The piece of land in question has traditionally been open to the public, extending into Sauble Beach North and encompassing the iconic “Welcome to Sauble Beach” sign. This new section adds to Sauble Beach South, which was already part of the Saugeen reserve, granting the First Nation ownership over the majority of the beach.

“This is a huge victory for our community and our people,” said Saugeen Chief Conrad Ritchie, in a statement. “We have been fighting to have the beach recognized as part of our reserve for generations. The beach is central to our way of life and, out of all our vast traditional territory, this is the land our ancestors chose to reserve for their future generations.”

The dispute over Sauble Beach can be traced back 170 years. The Saugeen asserted that when they signed Treaty 72 in 1854, establishing their reserve, the federal government improperly surveyed the land. The feds acknowledged their mistake in the 1970s, placing their support behind the Saugeen’s claim over Sauble Beach. But the Town of South Bruce Peninsula and the Ontario government opposed the claim, forcing the Saugeen First Nation to take the issue to court in 1995.

Over its 30-year history, the legal dispute has taken combative turns, such as in 2014, when federal government officials proposed a negotiated settlement, granting the Saugeen First Nation ownership of the beach with the clause that it would co-manage Sauble with South Bruce Peninsula. The town, however, turned this proposal down, deciding to continue fighting for ownership.

The beach is the town’s crown jewel. Paid parking around Sauble, which South Bruce Peninsula operates, costs approximately $30, generating a significant portion of the town’s annual revenue. With ownership transferring to the Saugeen, that could disappear.

Parking is only one of the cliffhangers left lingering in the wake of the court’s ruling. There are several private landowners who fall within the reserve’s new boundary. The town is waiting on an additional ruling from the court to see whether these landowners will be granted life interest, allowing them to remain where they are. There’s also the question of whether the beach will be open to the public. Over the last few years, Sauble Beach South, which was already owned by the Saugeen, has been made private, fencing the land off for cottagers who lease land from the First Nation.

The Saugeen did not respond to comment on the beach’s future, but Chief Conrad Ritchie said in a statement: “While the court recognized the importance of Sauble Beach to our people, we recognize that it is important to others as well, including as a tourist destination. We look forward to working with all of our neighbours to keep it a special place.”

South Bruce Peninsula Mayor Garry Michi said in a statement that the town has yet to decide whether it will appeal the decision. “Our immediate priority is to gain clarity on beach maintenance and governance issues until the final terms of the court’s ruling are settled later this year. Town council will be reaching out to the Saugeen First Nation to discuss these matters and will be working to find a mutually acceptable interim resolution.”

A second court proceeding will be held to determine whether the federal government owes damages to the Saugeen First Nation for incorrectly surveying its reserve.

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