Chief Denise Stonefish, left, signs the land transfer agreement with the United Church of Canada on Friday. (Photo by Michael Hugall)

‘This is our home’: historic agreement returns land to First Nation

Over 60 years in the making, a land transfer agreement between the United Church of Canada and the Delaware First Nation means the Eelünaapéewi Lahkéewiit people can return to their original home.

Dozens of community members braved cool temperatures at the Fairfield Museum Grounds near Bothwell on Friday as Chief Denise Stonefish signed the agreement which gave control of the 10 to 12-acre land back to its true owner.

Delaware First Nation Chief, Denise Stonefish addresses dozens of community members at the Fairfield Museum Grounds on Friday. (Photo by Michael Hugall)

Delaware First Nation Chief, Denise Stonefish addresses dozens of community members at the Fairfield Museum Grounds on Friday. (Photo by Michael Hugall)

“This was the original homeland of our people, and it means a lot to us and future generations that it would be returned to us,” said Stonefish. “I think community members are breathing a sigh of relief that this process is over and done with.”

Fairfield was established on May 8, 1792, by Delaware ancestors and Moravian missionaries. The village was destroyed by retreating American soldiers at the end of the War of 1812. After the destruction, the village was forced to move south of the Thames River, where the Delaware First Nations rebuilt their community. They have resided in that community since then.

Since the 1960s many chiefs have tried to bring the land back to its people. Before Stonefish, Chief Greg Peters spent part of a decade – he was chief from 2007 to 2017 – canvasing for Fairfield. Despite being just on the other side of the river, Peters said Fairfield has always been home to the Eelünaapéewi Lahkéewiit.

“We’ve been asking for this land for 50 years but maybe it’s just now that the creator sees that we are ready to move forward with telling our whole story,” said Peters. “A story that has been intertwined with the Moravian missionaries, the Methodist Church, and later the United Church.”

Now the process of moving the community back to its original land begins. Stonefish said she has ideas for future plans of the site, including an interpretive centre which tracks the journey of the First Nation from the eastern-seaboard to Fairfield.

“Our people built this community and we want to ensure that legacy continues and is part of our history to be shared with our future generations,” she said. “Not just with our community but with anyone who is passing through, much the same as they did in 1792.”

In reclaiming the land, the community regains permanent access to its ancestral grave sites, which Stonefish said could include bodies buried roughly 200 years ago.

The Delaware First Nation flag flies in the foreground as Denise Stonefish and former chief Greg Peters sign a land-transfer agreement with the United Church of Canada. (Photo by Michael Hugall)

The Delaware First Nation flag flies in the foreground as Denise Stonefish and former chief Greg Peters sign a land-transfer agreement with the United Church of Canada. (Photo by Michael Hugall)