by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
When the St. Peter’s Reserve Act was introduced into the House of Commons on March 23, 1915, an editorial in the Manitoba Free Press proclaimed that “a nine-year-old controversy” had finally been “removed.”
Specifically, the editorial, published on March 25, pointed out that Selkirk MP George H. Bradbury’s “stock in trade” had been eliminated; that is, he could no longer use the “St. Peter’s Reserve case” to intrude upon the business of the House of Commons. According to the editorial, after the St. Peter’s Indian Reserve land surrender in 1907, the “case” had “figured in every election in the constituency of Selkirk since that time.”
Indeed, ever since Bradbury was elected to the House of Commons in 1908, the Conservative MP had made the land surrender his cause célèbre. As an Opposition MP, he became a thorn in the side of Interior Minister Frank Oliver and the Liberal government of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
Bradbury continually pestered Oliver, who was also the superintendent general of Indian Affairs, to declare the land surrender by the Ojibway of St. Peter’s invalid, claiming it had been contrived by trickery and fraudulent means by federal Indian Affairs officials, and hadn’t been approved by a majority of adult male band members. He further alleged that the price realized per acre by the auction sale of the land was too low, and that the reserve residents had been victimized by “unscrupulous” real estate speculators.
Bradbury was joined in his crusade by the Manitoba government of Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin, which in 1911 established a Royal commission to investigate the land surrender.
Even when the Conservative government of Robert Borden came to power in Ottawa in 1911, Bradbury didn’t relent and asked that the government resolve the issue once and for all.
In 1913, new Interior Minister W.J. Roche promised “to take this question up ... for I realize the need for expediency.”
Political expediency, of course, requires a great deal more time than normally expected, so it took another three years for the government to arrive at its answer to the “question.” The government’s reply was the St. Peter’s Reserve Act, which was passed in the House of Commons and given Royal assent on May 18 and came into effect on June 1, 1916.
Essentially, the act was a compromise meant to soothe the anxiety of those who had bought land by giving them patents (titles). The act also attempted to appease the former reserve band members by adding an extra $1 for each acre of land sold following the surrender. Although not admitted by Indian Affairs, the additional money can be seen as an admission that not enough had originally been paid for the land as had been claimed by Bradbury and others.
Those who purchased the land felt they were unfairly being singled out to bail the government out of a particularly irksome situation at their expense. It was an allegation repeated in the pages of local newspapers. “The last jab at Selkirk’s sore spot came from Ottawa ... in a statement that the St. Peter’s land owners will be asked to contribute another $40,000 for their land (Free Press, February 21, 1916).”
The federal government tried to make the extra $1 extra per acre more palatable, by allowing payments “in five equal annual instalments with interest at the rate of five per cent per centum per annum from the first day of June, 1915, the first such instalment and interest to be due and payable on the first day of June, 1916, such lien to be issued by an endorsement of the lien or a caveat respecting same on the Certificate of Title issued to the owner by the District Registrar of the proper Land Titles Office: Provided that such lien may be paid in full at any time during the said five years with interest as aforesaid to the date of payment.”
If a land holder opted for instalment payments, Indian Affairs held the lien on the property.
The new landowners were pleased to have received official titles to their properties, but displeased that they were being forced by the same piece of federal legislation to pay more for St. Peter’s land or forfeit their acquisitions.
Another portion of the St. Peter’s Reserve Act conferred land titles to “Indian patentees,” if such land was held by a band member and unsold as of June 1, 1915.
The St. Peter’s band received some extra money, but the legislation put an official end to any hope that they would recover their former reserve.
In the end, no one was entirely satisfied, except the federal government. By passing the act, it curtailed further intrusion of the “St. Peter’s Reserve case” into its daily affairs.
St. Peter’s Indian Reserve, along both sides of the Red River immediately northeast of present-day Selkirk, was created three years after Chief Henry Prince (Mis-Koo-Ke-New) signed Treaty No. 1 at the Stone Fort (Lower Fort Garry) in August 1871. In the meantime, the Parish of St.
Peter’s, where the reserve was to be established, had a combination of land title holders, including Métis, white settlers and aboriginals.
This muddle of property holders arose prior to Manitoba’s entry into Confederation when Chief Peguis had granted land titles — termed “Peguis Deeds” — to natives and non-natives for lots along the Red River in the “Indian Settlement.” The settlement that had been set aside for Peguis and his followers by the terms of a treaty signed with Lord Selkirk in 1817. Peguis maintained he commenced the practice since he had the exclusive right to sell land from a tract along the Red River that had been ceded to him.
Actually, in 1846, the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was then the law of the land, confirmed Peguis' right to sell land at “the Indian Settlement or Chief Peguis settlement,” according to St. Peter’s settler James Monkman. Years later on January 8. 1895, he wrote to the interior minister about the HBC authorizing Peguis “to sell the lands north of the line run at the southern boundary of his settlement at a price set down by the H.B.Co.”
Monkman wrote that Judge Adam Thom (officially appointed by HBC Governor Sir George Simpson as the Recorder of Rupert’s Land) “gave to Chief Peguis a document in the form of a deed of sale, of which he gave a copy to all purchasers shewing (old spelling of showing) the amount of land sold to each purchaser ... This privilege was given to Chief Peguis by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the form of a pension for the active part he took with his Indians in defence of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Selkirk settlers at the fight of the Seven Oaks (1816) when Governor (Robert) Semple met his death.”
The practice of selling land and granting titles was continued by Chief Prince, Peguis' son, well after he signed Treaty No. 1. By 1882, most of the river lots were held by non-aboriginals and land speculators. A loan company and an MP owned 140 of the 245 lots.
Complicating the matter was that the town of Selkirk, and the RMs of St. Andrews and St. Clements began incorporating parts of the reserve into their territories so that they could collect taxes from non-aboriginals.
Although Chief Prince had expected the titles to be sorted out before the reserve became official, surveyor A.H. Vaughan, assisted by J.W. Harris, drew their own conclusion and included 17,331 acres of occupied river lots in the reserve, with another 37,915 acres added to make up the entire reserve.
The Ojibway continued to sell lots they believed they held individual titles on after the survey, while another contentious issue was the occupation of reserve land by “outsiders.”
“The existence of the privately held river lots within the boundaries of the St. Peter’s Reserve, and the conflicts that arose as a result, would plague the Department of Indian Affairs for decades (Indian Claims Commission [ICC], Peguis First Nations Inquiry Treaty Land Entitlement Claim, March 2001). One source of conflict concerned the right of treaty Indians to sell property owned by them prior to treaty. There was a divergence of opinion among the high-ranking officials on this point.”
In a February 15, 1875, letter to E.A. Meredith, Wemyss A. Simpson, the federal official present at the signing of Treaty No. 1, wrote that he believed the St. Peter’s Indians could not be prevented from selling their holdings, given that it had been agreed at treaty negotiations that the river lots would remain their own property. On the other hand, Félix Geoffrion, the federal minister of the Interior, made public statements in opposition to Simpson’s view.
As time progressed, the divergence of opinion became extremely important to the ultimate fate of the reserve and would eventually create the circumstances which assisted in bringing about the St. Peter’s land surrender of 1907.
To make the minister’s position the law of the land, legislation was passed in 1876 extending the surrender provisions of the Indian Act to Manitoba. By the provisions, all private land rights held by aboriginals once a reserve was created were extinguished and all reserve land became common property.
Indian Superintendent J.A.N. Provencher was instructed in 1876 to investigate and determine which river lot occupants were legally entitled to their land through the 1870 Manitoba Act. It was the intention of Indian Affairs to legal action against those who were found by Provencher not to be entitled to river lot land.
“After conducting his investigation, Provencher divided the river lot claimants he considered ‘objectionable’ into three categories: treaty Indians, persons who had purchased from treaty Indians subsequent to Treaty 1 but prior to the legislation extending the provisions of the Indian Act to Manitoba, and persons purchasing from Indians after the passage of the above legislation (ICC, March 2001).”
The investigation came to nothing, and another was conducted by Inspector E. McColl a year later. “I am of the opinion that those who purchased lots from treaty Indians,” he wrote to Laurier, who was then the superintendent of general of Indian Affairs, on May 17, 1878, “have no legal right whatever to them, although they might have been misled in doing so, for inasmuch as treaty Indians are wards of the government, they have no more power to convey lands than minors have.”
While attempts were unsuccessfully made to have such lots forfeited, more investigations into the validity of the titles ensued.
Finally in the case of The Queen v. Thomas, a Métis occupying a river lot in 1874 in the reserve and who took treaty (became a band member in 1871), Justice Burbridge of the Exchequer Court of Canada, ruled that he could not be deprived of his private property rights, although he was an “Indian” by having taken treaty payments. The ruling further meant that any members of the Peguis band, between Manitoba’s entry into Confederation in 1870 and the passage of legislation changing the Indian Act to apply to Manitoba, could not be deprived of their private property rights. Therefore, they had the right to sell their lots to a third party.
When the Laurier government came into power in 1896, the St. Peter’s Reserve “question” was assigned too T.G. Rothwell, the law clerk for the department of the interior. Rothwell submitted a report in 1900 to Interior Minister Clifford Sifton recommending the “tangle of claims” be resolved through a surrender of the reserve, which was “the first mention of such a course of action in the department’s 25-year history of dealing with the St. Peter’s land question (ICC).”
While the department didn’t act on this suggestion, W.F. McCreary, the MP representing Selkirk, took up the cause, but he died in 1904 and thus didn’t live to see the eventual outcome of his efforts.
Samuel Jackson, the next MP for Selkirk, was asked by the chief and councillors of St. Peter’s to help remove non-native owners of river lots from the reserve. Since Jackson, who is the founder of Stonewall, was a former inspector for Indian agencies in Manitoba, he was familiar with the long-standing land ownership controversy on the reserve.
But instead of taking individual action, he asked Frank Pedley, the deputy superintendent general of Indians Affairs, to initiate a process to settle the matter once and for all. In turn, Pedley turned over the file to the interior department, which resurrected Rothwell’s report favouring a land surrender and forwarded it to Frank Oliver, the new interior minister.
Rothwell’s report was well received by Oliver, who was a staunch proponent of reserve land surrenders, especially when reserves bordered white communities. In 1906, Oliver said that his department was making every effort to acquire surrenders of “surplus” reserve land in Western Canada. “If it becomes a question between he Indians and the whites, the interests of the whites will have to be provided for ...,” he added.
In addition, Oliver’s intervention breathed new life in Selkirk’s interest in the reserve land. As early as 1880s, Selkirk citizens were promoting the sale of the reserve. “Devise some means of bursting the reserve ... and your name will be immortalized,” wrote leading Selkirk citizen James Cocleugh in an 1883 letter to Lisgar MP A.W. Ross.
The Selkirk Board of Trade later circulated a petition urging the federal government organize the sale of St. Peter’s land, which was a process used successful in 1903 to convince the federal government to sell a portion of the Roseau River Indian Reserve in Manitoba.
Arguments in favour of the land surrender usually centred around the belief that it would benefit aboriginals to remove themselves far way from the temptations provided by nearby white communities. Scant mention was ever made that whites wanted reserve land for their own self-interests.
An often repeated claim made following the land surrender by the Free Press was that: “For many years the St. Peter’s Indians led a peaceful and even prosperous existence. With the development of the town of Selkirk and of the province, however, their condition has deteriorated. Owning to the fact that certain river lots within the reserve were owned by white and half-breed settlers, it proved impossible to keep liquor out of its boundaries. Drunken Indians have been an all too common sight on the streets of Selkirk.”
Official government policy was to “civilize” aboriginals living on reserves, but not through exposure to “civilization.”
Oliver, an Edmonton MP, was more predisposed to encouraging reserve land surrenders than his Liberal cabinet predecessor, Brandon MP Clifford Sifton. The minister of the interior sent Rothwell’s report to Pedley with instructions to review it and see how it could be used to arrive at a solution favourable to everyone involved.
In the meantime, land surrounding St. Peter’s Reserve was rising in value and Selkirk and Winnipeg speculators began to cast covetous eyes on the prime agricultural land found in the reserve.