by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
Political and community pressure exerted on Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, to secure the surrender of a significant portion of Roseau River IR 2 had been building over the course of several years. As the 20th century emerged, the pressure intensified to the point of becoming a political liability for the Liberals in Manitoba and Western Canada.
In the latter case, voters in what would become the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1905 also coveted land ceded to aboriginals through treaties with the Crown. Although there had previously been reserve land surrenders, they were few in number. As a result, what happened at Roseau River had a direct bearing upon future federal government policy. If such a large section of a reserve could be placed on the auction block, it would set a precedent, giving communities adjacent to reserves possessing rich agricultural land, the wherewithal to argue for similar treatment from the government.
Meanwhile in Manitoba, a petition was passed by the Municipality of Franklin in April 1900 urging the government to take steps to arrange for the surrender of at least a portion of Roseau River and open the land to white settlers in lots of 160 acres each. Alphonse LaRivière, the Conservative MP representing Provencher riding in southern Manitoba, mentioned the petition in the House of Commons, but the government declined to consider it until the document was received.
In 1889, LaRivière had made the promise to Provencher voters that, if elected, he would lobby for the surrender of the reserve. He kept his promise and raised the matter several times in the House of Commons, as well as continually brought the possibility of a land surrender to the attention of Sifton. Since LaRivière was a political opponent, Sifton, a Brandon Liberal MP and General Superintendent of Indian Affairs, could readily ignore the Provencher MP’s pleas on behalf of his constituents.
Requiring more attention from Sifton was J.A. Macdonnell, the Liberal MP for Selkirk, who received petitions from Emerson and Franklin also asking for Roseau River Reserve land to be opened up to white settlement. The clamour for reserve land had thus crossed to another level, transcending the political boundary between Liberals and Conservatives.
The petitions from the Manitoba communities were forwarded to Macdonnell by Emerson real estate agent Michael Scott, who told the MP in a June 16, 1900, letter that “great benefit would result” from the land surrender.
Macdonnell took the petitions to James Smart, the deputy general of Indian Affairs, who sent a return letter to the MP on June 23, 1900, saying there were difficulties the petitioners had not considered, such as the Canadian government being obliged to pay a “reasonable value to the Indians to whom it belongs, and as long as there appears to be land fit for settlement in the Province it would seem difficult to justify an expenditure of this kind out of the general funds of the country.”
Despite the “difficulties” outlined by Smart, political pressure was slowly eroding the will-power of government officials to maintain the best interests of the Roseau River Band.
On July 7, 1900, J.D. McLean, the secretary of Indian Affairs, sent a letter to Indian Commissioner David Laird asking him to determine under what terms “the Indians (of Roseau River) would surrender (their reserve).”
Laird sent S.R. Marlatt, the inspector of Indian agents, to Roseau to investigate and compile a report.
“My opinion is that they will not consent to surrender any part, or all of their reserve, in their own interest I think it would be to their advantage, as they are not making the best use of the reserve, and would do much better if assimilated with other bands which are removed from white settlements,” he told Laird in a December 21, 1900, communication. “But it will be hard to persuade them as they are very strongly wedded to the locality.”
Marlatt recommended that, if a surrender was obtained, it was in the best interests of the Roseau River Band that the land not be sold until “good prices can be realized.” Within five years, the inspector said, the land would probably double in value, since it was situated between two railways with stations within three miles of the reserve, which would intensify the demand for the land among settlers.
Marlatt said the petitioners from the Municipality of Franklin were motivated by self-interest rather than what was best for Roseau River Ojibway, which, of course, was an obvious inference. The residents of communities in Southern Manitoba articulated their self-interest in quite plain language. Reserve land could be better utilized by whites rather than aboriginals, they claimed.
In February 1901, Marlatt meet with the band, explaining their options in the event of a land surrender. Later, he reported that the members of main reserve at the mouth of the Roseau and Red rivers would consider selling, but the members of the rapids reserve some 20 kilometres to the east along the Roseau River were adamant in their refusal.
J.C. Ginn, the Indian Affairs farm instructor on the reserve, sent a reply to Marlatt that the proposal had been considered, but the two bands had decided not to sell.
Meanwhile, more people became intent upon getting into the land surrender lottery. The news of the proposals attracted the attention of Winnipegger John A. Howard. On June 6, 1901, he wrote Laird that he wished “to be considered the first applicant” for the land, which he planned to use for a colonization scheme. He said it “will mean a fair profit for me which you are aware will be very acceptable.”
The Dominion City Echo again took up the surrender cause on February 13, 1902, urging the town council to have its lawyers draft an agreement to sell the reserve land and “present (it) to the Indians and induce as many of them as possible to sign it, then send this in (to Ottawa) together with a petition from voters ...”
According to the newspaper, the majority of those living on the IR 2 were willing to sell, and they didn’t require any more land for their own existence than a “small corner.”
The newspaper believed that Indian Affairs would have no other option but to act on being presented with such a fait accompli.
On December 1902, Indian Commissioner David Laird met with two band councillors proposing a portion of IR 2 be surrendered. Seenee (Cyril) and Sahawisgookesick (Martin Adam) told Laird 28 band members had met with two of three chiefs on December 21 to discuss a surrender, and the unanimous decision was not to sell their reserve. According to the spokesmen for the chiefs, the refusal was based on the portion being proposed as the only reserve land not subject to flooding in the spring, As a result, the land was needed to keep their cattle high and dry during times of flooding, the two men added. The councillors also told the commissioner that they intended to cultivate the land in the near future.
In response, Laird urged them to reconsider the surrender over the course of the year, “and see if the advice I have given them is not the best,” according to the notes Laird made of the meeting.
At a meeting of the Young Liberal Club in Winnipeg, the Manitoba Free Press reported on January 12, 1903, that Sifton was approached by George Walton, who had unsuccessfully run for the party for the Emerson seat in the July 1903 provincial election, as well as a deputation, “and after some discussion obtained permission to allow Agent Marlatt to offer the (Roseau) Indians tempting inducements to sell off their right to the land.”
Sifton then instructed his secretary to inform Marlatt to meet with the band in order to organize the surrender of a portion of IR 2. “You should see Mr. George Walton of this City (Winnipeg), who is at Dominion City just now, regarding the matter.”
Marlatt was given two blank surrender forms to take with him when discussing the surrender with the Roseau River Band.
On January 19, Walton spoke at the annual meeting of the Liberal Association of the Emerson Electoral District in Dominion City and announced the beginning of the negotiations (with the band) for the land surrender (Emerson Journal, January 22, 1903).
The meeting was held a day later, but failed to obtain the outcome expected by Walton and Sifton.
“Mr. S.R. Marlatt, inspector of Indian Agents, addressed a large gathering of the three tribes of Indians on their reserve last Tuesday,” reported the Echo, “for the purpose of requesting them to give up part or the whole of their land. Although Mr. Marlatt made proposals that had never before been offered to Indians they absolutely refused to have anything to do with his offers.”
The Dominion City newspaper editorialized that someone had induced the Ojibway “to ask absurd figures for such land, thinking the government would pay it.
“Mr. Marlatt was very disappointed in not being able to persuade them to open their reserve, as such a thing would be of great advantage to the district.”
The article ended with the comment, “Let us hope they will come to their senses soon.”
On January 28, Sifton responded to yet another petition from local residents sent to him by Provencher MP LaRivière, saying that it was doubtful the Roseau River Band would surrender its land.
Yet, the land surrender occurred on January 30, 1903, but there is no official record of what happened to persuade the band members to finally agree after 14 years and 10 prior refusals. There is not even a record of the numbers who voted for or against the surrender. Apparently, Marlatt kept all this information to himself and simply related to Indian Affairs that the vote was in favour of the surrender.
What is known from the documents is that three chiefs — Sheshebance, Nashwasoop and Antoine — and nine headman signed the Surrender Document using “Xs.” The signed document was then taken the next day to the Justice of the Peace O. Bellevance in Letellier, where Chief Antoine and Marlatt signed the Affidavit of Surrender required by Indian Affairs, which acknowledged that assent to the surrender had been agreed to between the Crown (federal government) and the band. The surrender was accepted by the government in a February 25, 1903, Order in Council.
In an interview with Roseau River Anishinabe Elder Tom Henry in 1973, Roy Felix Antoine was told that no general assembly or vote was held by the band members (Roy Felix Antoine, Report on Research, prepared for the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood, August 31, 1973). According to Antoine’s report of his interview with Henry, “The people weren’t informed on what was taking place and he also states that the Agent (Marlatt) forced them to sell the land ... He (Henry) also informed the chief and council at that time that they shouldn’t sell the land but was told he didn’t know anything.”
Henry told Antoine that the “old people were crazy (not to hold a general assembly). They were promised that they would be rich.”
Rose Nelson, another elder, related to the 2002 Indian Claims Commission that her father told her that alcohol was used to obtain the surrender and a consensus for surrender had not been reached.
Elder Elsie Patrick said her grandfather told her those who signed the document felt it was “just like a lease or something, they were renting the land.”
The Indian Claims Commission in February 2009 found that the Crown, when pursuing the surrender of Roseau River IR 2, primarily acted “as the advocate for third parties” and “used its position of authority to exert influence on the band until the surrender was achieved.”
Marlatt wrote to Indian Commissioner David Laird on February 2 that the “surrender was obtained not by the desire of the Indians but by a strong wish of the Department, it was with great difficulty secured and only after a clear understanding that the 10% would be available almost immediately after sale.”
The percentage in question was a clause of the surrender, stating that immediately after the land sale, 10 per cent of the proceeds would be used for “articles and commodities as the Indians desire ...”
Another clause promised that the government would purchase two sections of land adjacent to IR 2A (Roseau Rapids Reserve) in exchange for the chief and band agreeing to “hereby release, surrender, quit claim, and yield up unto Our Sovereign Lord the King ... that certain parcel or tract of land and premises, situate, lying and being in Reserve No. 2 ... containing by admeasurement twelve square miles ...”
The surrendered land was 12 sections. A section is one mile, or 1.6 kilometres, square, and a section is made up of four quarters of 160 acres each. The “quit claim” of 7,698.6 acres of the reserve represented 60 per cent of the land in IR 2.
Marlatt further warned Laird it was “most important (to honour the agreement, as) it will be but a short time until they are again asked to surrender the balance of the reserve, and unless they are generously and fairly treated according to their own ideas at this time they will be very slow to sign another surrender.”
Four months later, buyers flocked to Dominion City in order to bid on the reserve land opened up to settlement by the surrender. The delay in the land sale was undoubtedly in response to earlier sales of surrendered land, which were rushed and marked by numerous irregularities, including forged tenders and vast blocks of land sold to companies with ties to the federal government. In addition, some Indian Affairs officials used the opportunity of a land surrender to illegally acquire lots. Land was sold so cheaply to land company speculators that aboriginals received little economic benefit from the sale of their reserves. On the other hand, the speculators realized enormous profits when they resold the land.
The earlier tendering system had proven so rife with outright political interference and irregularities that it was deemed advisable for the Liberals to take their time to iron out the details of the sale and avoid further embarrassment by using a public auction process, which was proposed by Walton and accepted by Sifton.
The Manitoba Free Press on May 16, 1903, reported: “For weeks past Dominion City hotels have been crowded with men who came to look over the land, many of those were Americans, and some have actually resided in the town for a month or six weeks.
“Interest was at fever heat yesterday, when the train from Winnipeg pulled in at 12 o’clock. No less than 100 rigs were drawn up in front of the various stables, and in addition to the large number of probable bidders were many Indians, who were, no doubt, interested in the disposal of their reserve, and also after the sale they were to receive a certain proportion of the purchase money.”
Typical of the prevailing attitude toward aboriginals as “uncivilized” heathens, the newspaper chose to comment on the “bright coloured garb,” and “young bucks” going in “for something extra special in the line of hair dressing and wore their long black hair in two braids falling over the shoulder in front and each braid wrapped at the end with weasel hair.”
The original intention had been to hold the auction in the municipal hall over Dick’s Store, but it possessed inadequate space to accommodate the growing throng gathering in Dominion City. A half hour before the auction was to commence, a notice was posted changing the venue to Morkill’s Hall which had a seating capacity of 260. When the auction was set to begin, over 300 people had jammed into the hall.
According to the terms of the sale presented by auctioneer James Dowswell of Emerson, each successful bidder on a quarter section (160 acres) of land was required to immediately present a deposit of $100 in cash to clerk J.B. Lash from Indian Commissioner Laird’s office. Auctioneer Dowswell told the audience that an unnamed local banker had received a “special supply of money” for those who didn’t have the cash on-hand, provided they made arrangements with the banker.
The newspaper described the number of $100 bills brought by the bidders as being as “plentiful as blackberries.”
Another condition of the sale was that the cash payment was to be followed by nine annual installments, the first of which was due on November 3, 1904. Until the full cost of the land was paid, an interest rate of five per cent was charged on the amount owed.
A rather ironic provision was that where a “crop” remained on any land sold at the auction, “Indians were to be allowed to reap the crop at maturity, and in the meantime they would pay a small rent for the land.” In effect, the “Indians” became tenants on land they had previously owned.
In earlier discussions of land surrenders, some government officials had been of the opinion that it would have been better for the aboriginals to keep their land and lease the “surplus” out to whites for agricultural purposes. In contrast to what happened in 1903, they would retain the benefits of landownership and the whites would be the tenants. But the government only accepted arguments in favour of surrenders of “surplus” land, believing the money earned would benefit band members.
Surveyor John Lestock Reid subdivided the surrendered land and placed an “upset” (reserve bid) price on each quarter section, ranging from $10 to $12 per acre.
The land in sections 14, 13, 23, 24, 26, 35 and 25 was described as level prairie with small bluffs of willow and poplar, while sections 1, 2, 12 and 30 were also level, but filled with thick willow and poplar scrub. The Roseau River ran through three quarter sections of the land up for bid.
(Next week: part 3)