by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)
When auctioneer James Dowswell of Emerson banged his gavel down, signalling the commencement of the bidding for Roseau River Reserve land, he opened “with the N.E. 1-4 of section 1, township 3 and range 2 ...,” according to the Manitoba Free Press.
“What am I bid!” he called out at Morkill’s Hall in Dominion City.
The response was a rather disappointing $5 an acre, which was a far cry from the “upset” (reserve) bids of $10 or $12 per acre, depending upon the location of the quarter section as determined by surveyor John Lestick Reid.
But according to the May 16, 1903, Free Press article, Roseau Lands Sold Well, “from that (point) until the end of the sale there was no hesitation in the bidding.”
That a flurry of bids arose should have come as no surprise. If wheat was “king” in Western Canada, then land was “queen.” In order for the former to bring prosperity to a settler, then a union with the latter was absolutely essential.
The “Last Best West,” as advertising for immigrants distributed by the Canadian government proclaimed, was in the midst of the final great land rush in North America. Leading the charge for the agricultural development of the prairies was Clifford Sifton, the federal minister of the interior, who turned his attention to attracting Americans and “stalwart peasants in sheep-skin coats” from Eastern Europe to fill the land. “Only farmers need apply” was the mantra of Sifton, which was repeated in the federal government’s brochures promoting immigration to Canada.
All the rich farmland south of the border in the United States had been snapped up years earlier, so covetous eyes looked northward to quench their thirst for new territory to exploit. And, the portion of Roseau River IR (Indian Reserve) 2 on the auction block was prime agricultural land.
Only once did the auctioneer say, ‘The land is not sold,’ the offer not reaching the reserve bid.”
The quarter section that didn’t meet the “upset” bid was again placed on the auction block, and then sold for $10.75 per acre.
The average price paid during the auction was $13.25 per acre, with the highest bid being $15.25 an acre for S.E. 1-4,section 14 in 3-2 east by Fred Curran of Emerson. The lowest price paid was $10 per acre for the N.W. 1-4 of section 1-3-2 east, by George Ganssle of St. Thomas, North Dakota.
The newspaper said that Americans “were very decidedly in evidence ... They bid doggedly for some parcels raising 25c (cents), at a time.
“There was a large number of local farmers, a sprinkling from Ontario and a few from the Northwest Territories (what would become the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1905). A few Galicians (Ukrainians) were present but in no case did they bid.”
The newspaper made a point of mentioning that only two real estate men from Winnipeg were in the crowd — W.A. Morkill of the Canadian West Land Company and Peter Rutherford, a highly-successful Winnipeg real estate agent. Morkill actually resided in Dominion City where the auction took place, but was the treasurer of the Winnipeg-based Canadian West Land Company, which was in the business of purchasing blocks of land in Manitoba that were then resold at a profit.
What is not mentioned in the article is that Michael Scott of Emerson was also a real estate agent who purchased land on behalf of residents from his hometown and the Municipality of Franklin. Scott later picked up more reserve land on assignment. Another buyer was J.C. Ginn, the farming instructor from Dominion City, who also picked up more land on assignment (First Nations Land Surrenders on the Prairies, 1896-1911, by Peggy Martin-McGuire).
Since the newspaper reported that only two real estate agents were in attendance, it erroneously came to the conclusion that the land was not being bought by speculators, but by settlers.
It was true that two-thirds of the land was purchased by settlers, but it was also true that speculators were present and some did obtain blocks of land.
American speculators were present, according to Lash, but they were dissatisfied with the land due to the difficulty of obtaining nearby water in most of the sections up for bid. In a May 22, 1903, letter to Laird, Lash acknowledged the concerns expressed by the American speculators, writing, “As it is difficult to get good water in the district, the supply generally is taken from the river.”
The Free Press reported: “The three river lots all went to Mr. Whitley, of Emerson; Mr. J. (Jacques) Parent, of Letellier, secured the largest number of quarter sections — ten in all. Mr. Pocock, banker of Emerson, bought for Mr. Parent, and Mr. Geo. (George) Ganssle of St. Thomas, N.D., was the next heaviest, securing four quarter sections.”
The land bought by Parent and Ganssle was for speculation rather than the intention to work the land themselves. Parent was noted as a private mortgage lender, grain buyer and real-estate speculator, while Ganssle was the president of First National Bank in St. Thomas.
In total, 12 of the 44 quarter sections were purchased by bidders from North Dakota.
The total amount realized from the sale was $99,822.50. One year later, two sections of land were purchased by the government and added to the Roseau River Rapids Reserve.
“I am pleased to say that the sale passed off most satisfactorily,” Graham wrote on June 3, 1903, to A.P. Collier, Sifton’s personal secretary, “and the lands brought fair prices and every person present congratulated the Department on the fair manner in which it was conducted. I desire to thank Hon. Mr. Sifton and yourself for the assistance rendered me in connection with this matter.”
Subsequently, the Roseau River Band received $8,588.60 in cash or goods, but this wasn’t satisfactory and in the following years a dispute arose over the payments the band expected to receive.
According to Interior Minister Frank Oliver, Sifton’s successor, “(S.R.) Marlatt (the inspector of Indian agents) had explained to the Band at the time of the surrender how the installment payments by the purchasers would garner interest, and promised that significant amounts of this interest would be distributed annually to the band members (Indian Claims Commission Proceedings, February 12, 2009).
“In 1911, Indian Agent R. Logan went so far as to express the opinion that Marlatt had promised the Indians that they would be paid about $3,000 a year, which, according to Logan, the Indians understood to be every year, not only for three years.
Roseau Chief Antoine led a deputation to Ottawa complaining to Indian Affairs officials about the handing of the surrender and the proceeds from the sale.
“Chief Antoine demanded information on the sale of the reserve and the money that was to be paid out to band members,” according to the ICC, “he did not raise concerns about the surrender itself.”
What followed was a decades long battle between Roseau River and the federal government over the interpretation of the land surrender. In 1982, the band submitted a specific claim to Indian Affairs for compensation arising from the government’s management of the land sales resulting from the 1903 surrender. The claim was rejected by the government in 1986 with the rejection confirmed again in 2001.
The Indian Claims Commission (ICC) agreed in 1993 to investigate the validity of the Roseau River claim regarding the 1903 surrender, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the ICC filed its report.
“The 1903 surrender was, above all, a foolish, improvident, and exploitive agreement,” according to the ICC findings. “At a time when the Band was struggling to adapt to a livelihood of farming in accordance with federal policy, the Crown permitted and actively encouraged the surrender of 60 per cent of the Band’s main reserve. In 1903, the Crown knew or should have known that it would be foolhardy to cut the Band’s relatively small total land base in half; to surrender the best-quality agricultural land on the reserve, land which the Band would soon need to cultivate and which it relied on to earn income; to surrender the highest and driest land, which the band used for grazing cattle during flood; to leave the Band with a majority of reserve land at IR 2 that was low-lying and subject to annual floods; and to substitute two sections of land at the Rapids that was only good for pasture and wild hay.”
In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the Indian Affairs officials in 1903 were deemed to have followed the existing rules under the Indian Act for a land surrender, but the ICC found that by not disallowing the surrender, the federal government “was in breach of its fiduciary duty.”
It was also found that the “Crown failed to properly manage the Band’s legal and other interests in its reserve when confronted with the the objective of local settlers, municipalities, and some politicians to open up the land for settlement.”
In effect, the federal government had bowed before outside pressures rather than perform its duty of protecting the interests of those living on the reserve.
The ICC recommended that the claim of the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation, regarding the 1903 surrender of a portion of IR 2, be accepted for negotiation under Canada’s Specific Claims Policy.
The Roseau River First Nation received a written offer from the federal government in 2010 for $80.6 million to resolve the claim arising from 1903 land surrender, as well as the ability to purchase 7,952,78 acres of land to convert into a reserve — the amount of land surrendered in 1903. On February 8, 2011, band members voted to accept the offer from the federal government, with each member receiving $5,000 and the remaining $60 million placed in a trust fund.