In 1743, the King of France granted a seigneury in the Lake of Two Mountains region near Montreal to the Gentlemen of St. Sulpice. The purpose of this grant was to facilitate the ongoing efforts of Sulpician missionaries to safeguard their Indian converts from the dubious advantages of non-Native incursion. The Indians who were moved there were a mixed lot, mainly Six Nations and Huron, but the community included some Algonkin and Nipissing people. The question of title to these lands has been a matter of dispute, sometimes violent and always acrimonious, ever since. The Indians have based their claim on occupation and continued use of the territory, while the Sulpicians invoked the documentation conveying them a grant as evidence of their ownership.
The two parties came into conflict as early as 1781, and frequent clashes have continued to the present. The Sulpicians objected to the way the Indians used the land, a recurrent complaint focusing on the habit of the Indians to cut wood wherever they wanted without Sulpician permission. For the Indians, the Sulpicians' practice of leasing or selling land without consultation or a division of the profits was a matter of contention.
The conflict was serious enough and recurred with such frequency that it gained considerable political attention and inspired several attempts at resolution. These efforts included an Act by the colonial legislature in 1841 that affirmed the Sulpicians in their title to the land. After the formation of Canada, the religious question became a complicating factor. Unwilling or unable to trod on the Sulpicians for fear of alienating the Roman Catholic vote in Quebec, the government made half-hearted attempts to end the continued conflict by trying to relocate the Indians involved and pushing litigation as a means to win a "final" decision. Resettlement proved unworkable and the contending parties obstructed a resort to the courts, and the issue festered until the end of the nineteenth century.
In 1903, an exasperated federal Liberal government forced the issue, and a test case was formulated. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, however, did not issue a judgement until 1912. In the case of Angus Corinthe et al. v. The Ecclesiastics of the Seminary of St. Sulpice of Montreal, the Indians advanced a multi-faceted argument to assert their title to the land. They pointed out that the Sulpician land grant was a "trust," whereby the order held the land for its true owners, the Indians who had used the land for various purposes and in a variety of ways since "time immemorial." They also employed the concept of Aboriginal title, insisting that this right in the land had never been extinguished and that the provisions of the Royal Proclamation and simple possession of the land bolstered this title.
The Sulpicians had both the documentation of their grant and the 1841 Act of the colonial legislature to support their claim. They drew attention to the fact that those pressing the claim against them were largely members of the Six Nations whose homelands were known to be farther south, thus denying the Indian assertion of Aboriginal title from time immemorial.
The Corinthe decision went against the Indians in a judgement consistent with contemporary views of the concept of Aboriginal title on which the Indians had based their case. The narrow and dependent interpretation given to Aboriginal title in the St. Catherine's Milling case made application of it in Corinthe a weak instrument in Native interests. As far as the Judicial Court of the Privy Council was concerned, Aboriginal title could be given and taken away, and this had effectively been done by the 1841 Act affirming Sulpician title.
In the legal climate of the time, the decision could hardly have gone any other way. But the problem for which a resolution had been sought in Corinthe was not achieved. Conflict and dissension returned to the communities at Oka and Lake of Two Mountains. The confrontation there in the summer of 1990 was only the most spectacular manifestation of this long-running contest.