by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
The usual argument in favour of a land surrender of a First Nations reserve was that good agricultural acreage was being under-utilized and could be put to better purpose by white settlers. While the St. Peters Indian Reserve land surrender of 1907 is the most recognized example of such an argument, a precedent was established in Manitoba four years earlier when a significant portion of the Roseau River Indian Reserve, known today as the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation, was placed on the auction block.
“Here then is this large area of good land being occupied by a few indolent Indians; only 236 (Ojibway) on 14,150 acres,” according to an article in the Dominion City Echo (reprinted in the January 30, 1902, Manitoba Free Press). “How much better would it be for the district surrounding this reserve and for the Indians themselves, if the land were put up for sale and the money kept for them as a reserve fund.”
An Indian Affairs report in 1890 indicated 2,400 bushels of wheat had been harvested at Roseau River, as well as 360 bushels of potatoes. Another Indian Affairs report presented in the House of Commons on February 7, 1889, contained statements from F. Ogilvie that the Roseau River Reserve land was the best for stock and grain in the northwest. During the previous year, 80 acres had been sown in wheat and another 10 acres were sown in barley. The small acreage under cultivation by a small number of people was emphasized as a reason for the reserve in part or in whole to be turned over to white agricultural exploitation.
But aboriginals were at a considerable disadvantage when it came to cultivating land in comparison to their white neighbours as a result of a “peasant farming policy” developed in 1888 by Hayter Reed, the top bureaucrat in the Department of Indian Affairs (First Nations Land Surrenders, 1896-1911, by Peggy Martin-McGuire, Canada, Indian Claims Commission, 1998). The policy was based on the assumption that aboriginal farmers were not ready for modern machinery and would be better occupied in labour-intensive activities.
“Under the policy,” wrote Martin-McGuire, “money for farm machinery was withheld from Indians, reducing the Department’s costs as well as forcing the Indians to farm at subsistence levels...”
Although the policy was scrapped in 1896, it had left a legacy of under-utilized land. In addition, another policy had encouraged breaking reserves into small plots for each family, which had the effect of checking modern agricultural practices and giving officials the wherewithal to deem portions of reserve land as “surplus.”
“Their (Roseau River Reserve) numbers depleted by disease and their spirit sapped, the (Indian) agent believed that the only hope was to obtain a surrender and use the money to purchase a more isolated reserve where they could be relocated,” wrote D.J. Hall in the essay, Clifford Sifton and Canadian Indian Administration: 1896-1905 (As Long as the Sun Shines and Water Flows: A Reader in Canadian Native Studies, 2000).
In fact, small pox and other diseases, from which the people had no natural immunity, had decimated the Ojibway at Roseau River, contributing in part to a greatly diminished population from the original 1,100 people in 1871 when Treaty No. 1 was signed. Other people had simply left the reserve out of the frustration of not being able to eke out a meagre living with the scant tools provided by Indian Affairs.
Since 1889, there had been pressure exerted by local politicians, businessmen and settlers to have the federal government approach the band members to surrender a portion of their reserve — which was also full of timber to be exploited — but continually the Ojibway resisted the arguments used to persuade them it was in their best interests.
At the turn of the 20th century, the pressure intensified, although the band again refused another offer made in February 1901.
The Dominion City Echo championed the campaign begun in 1902 to have a significant parcel of the eastern portion of the reserve’s land surrendered and sold by auction to white settlers.
There were actually two reserves: the larger Roseau River Reserve was located at the confluence of the Red and Roseau rivers (the Roseau River was originally marked on early maps as the Reed or Reed Grass River because its upper course ran through many reed-filled swamps; the French name for reed is Roseau), while the Roseau Rapids Reserve was located adjacent to the rapids of the same name. The larger Roseau River Reserve (IR 2) contained 13,350 acres of land, while the smaller Roseau Rapids Reserve, some 20 kilometres east of the larger reserve, was made up of 800 acres of land for a total of 14,140 acres.
The Ojibway chiefs Na-sha-ke-penais (Flying Down Bird), Na-na-wa-nanan (Centre of Bird’s Tail), Ke-we-tayash (Flying Round) and Wa-ko-wash (Whip-poor-will) had signed Treaty No. 1 at Lower Fort Garry (the Stone Fort) on August 3, 1871, which provided 160 acres of land for every family of five. At the time of signing, the Ojibway chiefs represented the Pembina Band. Once relocated to their reserve, \they became known as the Roseau River Band.
At the Stone Fort, Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald said the Great Mother (Queen Victoria) promised “to make rules to keep them (plots of land) for you, so that as long as the sun shall shine, there will be no Indian who has not a place that he can call his home, where he can go to pitch his camp, or if he chooses, build his house and till his land.”
When questioned about what would happen when families increased in size, Archibald replied that they would be provided land to the west, distant from white settlements. “Whenever the reserves are found too small the government will sell the land, and give the Indians land elsewhere.”
His words implied that the terms of the treaty weren’t necessarily final, and this would be used in arguments to surrender reserves and relocate natives when “civilization” began to encroach upon their lands. Yet, Archibald did promise that the land set aside as reserves was “to be used by you and your children forever,” and the Great Mother “will not allow the white man to intrude (trespass) upon these lots.”
Archibald further promised plows and harrows on each reserve to cultivate land.
Many of the promises, such as the plows and harrows, horse and buggies for chiefs, schools and medical aid, were verbal and not written down in the final treaty document.
The proposed site for the Roseau River Reserve was not marked out until 1874, and it was not officially surveyed until 1887 when a block-shaped reserve was created extending back from the Roseau River — not along the river’s length as had been expected.
It was believed by some chiefs who had settled in the Roseau Rapids area that a separate reserve would be set-up for their people under the terms of Treaty No. 1, not a single reserve for all. The smaller reserve (IR 2A) was created by the federal government in 1888 in return for the promise by the Roseau Rapids Ojibway to extinguish all claims to lands other than IR 2 and IR 2A.
The Dominion City Echo wrote: “The land on these reserves is well adapted for farming and stock raising, it being rich black loam.” With only 236 aboriginal people inhabiting the reserve, the newspaper claimed the reserve was a waste of good farmland.
In a paternalistic manner, the Dominion City newspaper alleged the “indolent” — that is, lazy — Indians were better off to immediately sell their land obtained through treaty rather than holding onto it, although, the newspaper had so obviously admitted the land would have a greater value in the future. An argument for the land surrender was that the interest earned from a trust fund would benefit the Ojibway and their children well into the future.
In the meantime, the Echo claimed “under the existing circumstances the land is little more than a desert, so far as raising any profitable produce is concerned, and will never be a source of revenue either to the government or any towns in proximity to it so long as it is occupied by the Indians.”
The newspaper wanted the government to persuade the people to “sell a portion of the reserve and an interpreter could explain the position to them in such a way that they would be quite willing to dispose of the greater portion of their land, and with their good will there would be no trouble.”
Initially, the federal government and its agents resisted the pressures placed upon them to sponsor a land surrender. In fact, the local indian agent defended the band’s interests, reporting that declining wildlife necessitated the band possessing a reserve with excellent agricultural land, hay fields, fishing and timber. In 1895, it was noted that band members were planting crops. When he asked the leaders about surrendering the reserve, they declared that they would never consent to give it up as it was the only thing that they and their children had to depend on for a livelihood (Indian Claims Commission report, December 6, 2007).
Even Clifford Sifton, the Brandon MP and Minister of the Interior in the Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier government, was at first against land surrenders, although he was disillusioned with the then existing reserve system.
Sifton, who was the federal Superintendent General of Indian Affairs — the agency fell under his jurisdiction as the Minister of the Interior — answered pleas to open up aboriginal land for agricultural, timber and mineral exploitation by saying the government acted as a trustee for native people.
“Whatever may be deemed desirable or otherwise,” Sifton told Alphonse A. LaRivière, the MP for St. Boniface, “the fact of the matter is that the Indians own these lands just as my Hon. friend owns any piece of land for which he has a title in fee simple. The faith of the government of Canada is pledged to the maintenance of the title of these Indians in that land.”
Of course there were certain circumstances in which reserve land could be surrendered, although he was at first loathe to endorse such an outcome. He said the government would seek consent to exploit their lands, only “when we think it will not interfere with the means of livelihood of the Indians.”
“The law,” he told Frank Oliver, an Edmonton MP pushing for a land surrender in Alberta through an order-in-council by the federal government, “is very specific and clear ... in no case in which Indians are in possession of a reserve can the same be taken from them without their consent and the money placed to the general credit of all the Indians in the country ... This system makes it ... impossible to throw land held by the Indians open for settlement immediately at a proposition to that effect being made, even in cases in which it is clear to the department that it is in the general interest of any particular band themselves that such land should be thrown open.”
Sifton was referring to the amended Indian Act of 1876, which specified that consent for a surrender had to be obtained from the “majority of the male members of the band of the full age of twenty-one years, at a meeting or council thereof summoned for the purpose according to their rules.”
When Oliver replaced Sifton as the Minister of the Interior in 1904, he ignored Sifton’s earlier advice and intensified the federal government’s efforts to obtain land surrenders.
In 1906, Oliver said his department was making every effort to acquire surrenders of “surplus” aboriginal land in the West. “If it becomes a question between the Indians and whites, the interests of the whites will have to be provided for ...”
Oliver’s philosophy was reinforced when Parliament passed an amendment to the Indian Act in 1911, allowing expropriation by order of the court of any reserve near a town or city of 8,000 people, regardless of any previous agreement. This provision became known as the “Oliver Act,” which was passed despite the common knowledge that it could lead to a breach of treaty rights.
On the other hand, Sifton usually followed the advice of his agents in the field, such as James Andrew Joseph McKenna, who was “convinced that the Indians can only be advanced through labour (that is, being taught, and even virtually forced, to grow grain and raise cattle) and that I propose doing what I can to hasten the day when rations houses shall cease to exist and the Indians be self-supporting. That day will never come if officers continue the system of handling Indians through bribing them with food.”
Sifton wanted reserve residents to receive a practical agricultural education provided by farm instructors, who he encouraged as they became successful in implementing his policy.
Although his policy seemed to favour retention of reserves by their respective bands, Sifton’s mind was changed through mounting political pressure to reconsider the fate of Roseau River. In particular, George Walton, an Emerson businessman and Liberal Party stalwart, was alleged to have urged Sifton to approach the band to surrender their land.
(Next week: part 2)