by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)
The St. Peter’s Reserve vote was over and the procedure to complete the land surrender was set in motion.
The surrender agreement was signed by Chief William Prince, councillors W.H. Harper, Henry Prince, James Williams and John Prince, and ex-chief William Asham. The agreement was witnessed by Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs Frank Pedley, Indian agent Rev. John Semmens, a former Inspector of Indian Agencies based in Selkirk, MLA Dr. Orton I. Grain (Marquette) and Ernest Raynor of Selkirk. The affidavit verifying the surrender was sworn by Indian Agent J.O. Lewis and Chief Prince before West Selkirk Police Magistrate D.S. Daly, and officially accepted by a federal order-in-council dated October 14, 1907.
The terms of the surrender were published in the Free Press on October 1, 1907, and included the sum of $5,000 to the band in advance of the selling of any land; the balance of unused land to be sold and one-half the principal paid to the band, with the remainder held in trust in Ottawa with interest from this fund paid to the band on a yearly basis; a new reserve of 75,000 acres to be awarded along the shores of Lake Winnipeg; “reasonable” provision to anyone wanting to move to the new reserve within five years; “reasonable” assistance in establishing the new reserve; and all other obligations in the original 1871 treaty remaining as binding.
In addition, during each yearly payment to the band, the chief was to receive $10 and each councillor $6 more than the amount received by other band members. The chief also received 180 acres of land and Asham and the councillors 120 acres each, while every head of a family of five received 80 acres.
“In addition to the said 21,000 acres above mentioned there shall be set aside 3,000 acres of hay land for the members of the band having land in the present reserve or entitled to receive land under this agreement.”
The remaining 24,000 acres were to be put up for public auction.
Hector Howell, the Chief Justice of the Manitoba Court of Appeals, who was appointed in 1906 by a federal government order-in-council to investigate the muddle of land titles at St. Peter’s, submitted his report to Governor General Earl Grey on December 2, 1907. The report dealt with such matters as several claims made by the band concerning the location of the southern border of the St. Peter’s Reserve, the right of band members to receive a patent for river lots owned by them prior to Treaty No. 1, and compensation for the loss of river lots patented to outsiders.
“The new Reserve is accepted by the Band in full satisfaction of all damages claimed and of all rights, individual or tribal, asserted as above set forth,” Pedley reported to the governor general.
The sale of St. Peter’s land took place on December 16, 1907. There were over 200 people in attendance during the auction, but most of the land was purchased by “Selkirk businessmen,” according to a later report by the Free Press (February 4, 1914).
The land was auctioned off by a Mr. Mollard of Stonewall for an average price of $5.65 an acre, which was well short of the $10 per acre that federal officials had told the band members would be realized from the auction at the surrender meeting.
Some land did sell for higher amounts, as several blocks near St. Louis Station sold for $10 to $14 an acre, while river lots sold for between $4 and $20 each.
The principle buyers were H.L. Emmerett of Kansas, J. Hyland and William Frank of Winnipeg, and G.H. Funk of Iowa. Selkirk purchasers of land included E.F. Comber and F.E. Halloway.
“The Indians, as they received patents for their individual holdings of 16 acres each (at St. Peter’s), proceeded to sell, and within a year practically all their land had passed into the hands of other owners. Between $5 and $6 an acre, on average, was obtained for this land by the vendors (Free Press, February 4, 1914).
“The Indians, after the completion of the surrender and the sale of the lands, began to remove to the new reserve (Peguis), and within a year a third of them were in their new homes.
“Thus far everything moved smoothly forward; the end which the people of Selkirk desired — the transferring of the reserve land to white owners, ensuring the cultivation and development and the removal of the Indians from the vicinity.”
Yet, the so-called smooth process hit a road block when Selkirk MP George H. Bradbury questioned the validity of the surrender in the House of Commons in February 1909 at the urging of a petition initiated by dissatisfied members of the former St. Peter’s Reserve.
The Minnedosa Tribune reported on November 3, 1910: “That the Indians of St. Peter’s reserve believe they were the victims of the white man’s cunning and cupidity in the recent surrender of the reserve lands.”
The newspaper said the “indignant Indians” meeting with Rev. John McDougall, the representative of Interior department sent by Oliver to “hear the grievance of the red man.”
At the meeting, McDougall, speaking in Cree, said his own charge from Oliver was “to listen to the Indian version of events leading up to and since the surrender of the reserve lands.”
During the House debate, Bradbury said “the land should not have passed into the hands of speculators and friends of gov’t. at low cost.” He called the sale a “barefaced swindle.”
Bradley was joined in calling for he annulment of the surrender by the Manitoba government under Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin.
“They (Bradbury and Roblin) encouraged the Indians to to stay on the old reserve in place of removing them at the expense of the Dominion government to their new home, and held out to them the hope that they regain possession of their land, which they could resell at an enhanced price (Free Press, February 4, 1914).”
The selection of a new reserve along the shore of Lake Winnipeg was in the hands of Semmens, representing Indian Affairs, and R.D. Foley, representing the Interior department. During the search for the new reserve, the government officials were accompanied by Jacob Thomas, who was appointed to represent the interests of the St. Peter’s Band members, as well as Chief Prince and councillors, and MLA Dr. Orton Irvin Grain (Kildonan and St. Andrew’s) and Ernest Raynor from Selkirk, who were chosen by the band to act as witnesses to the selection process. Grain and Raynor also signed the original surrender deed as witnesses.
They boarded the steamer Chieftain, commanded of Capt. Jack Stevens, on October 1, 1907, for the tour of available land along Lake Winnipeg travelling to Beren’s River, land adjacent to the Little Saskatchewan and then the Fisher River district.
In a report of the trip written by Foley and published in the October 25 Free Press, he described the Fisher River District as “without doubt the finest I have yet seen in Manitoba for farming purposes outside the prairie sections. The land is first class, deep alluvial soil on clay bottom, free from stone and easily cleared, having been burnt over, leaving no more timbers than would be required for settlement purposes.”
It was apparently an opinion held in common among the selection committee, as the district would become the band’s new home, and the Peguis Indian Reserve (Peguis First Nation) was created. Unfortunately, the glowing report by Foley was far from a true description of the land, which is more properly referred to as marginal scrub and swamp land prone to seasonal flooding. As it turned out, fertile alluvial black soil farmland at St. Peter’s was exchanged for a far less valuable tract immediately north of present-day Hodgson.
The former St. Peter’s Band also received another 300 acres for the construction of a fishing station on the west side of Moose Island in Fisher Bay.
In the aftermath of the growing controversy, Manitoba Land Titles Registrar-general, W.E. Macara, refused to grant Torrens title to the land purchasers. After the Manitoba government-appointed Royal commission investigating the surrender issued its report on January 12, 1912, which by a 2-1 vote said the surrender was invalid, Macara said: “The decision of the commission has practically no force. The commission had no power to pass legally upon the ownership of the land, and all this does is to confirm my own opinion that the surrender was invalid.”
It was Macara who suggested in 1911 that the Canadian government pass an act declaring the land surrender and sale valid in order to confirm land titles. As events eventually transpired, this was the course of action taken in 1916, although Macara, when making the suggestion, said “this course seems unlikely.”
William Frank, who was reported in the April 24, 1911, Free Press as “one of the chief buyers of Indian lands” at St. Peter’s, said the surrender had become a “vehicle of personal feeling and of political consequence.”
The Winnipeg-based real estate speculator claimed there had been many “erroneous statements”made about the land sale. Frank admitted that he was “one of the most considerable of those purchasers.”
Frank purchased about 1,800 acres of St. Peter’s Reserve land during the December auction at an average price of $5.14 an acre. “I consider this a fair price at the time of the purchase, considering that all the purchases consisted of small parcels from sixteen acres upwards.”
Frank also purchased individual lots, and had “not heard of a single complaint from any of the Indians from whom I purchased.” Among the individuals was Asham, who sold land for $6 an acre, receiving a cheque for $346.24 from Frank.
Asham sold another 40 acres of land to Winnipegger G.H. Funk for $4 an acre.
Since the original land sale, Frank admitted that the land had increased significantly in value.
“In the light of to-day, the prices look ridiculous yet the sales were honestly made, and the public realized that, and no fault has been found. Why should a few agitators, political agitators, seek to stir up strife and embarrass the government, which is making an honest effort to remove these people and improve conditions in Selkirk?”
It was a position supported by Interior Minister Oliver. In reply to Bradbury’s claims, Oliver told the House of Commons on April 4, 1910: “I believe never since this chamber was erected has there been delivered in its walls such a persistent and sustained trade of unfounded assertion, of unwarranted insinuation; a tirade that, in its gratuitous exactitude, is an offense against the privilege of parliament and an insult to its intelligence.”
He said the surrender was obtained legally. “The department has absolutely nothing to conceal or apologize for. We ask honorable members (of the House of Commons) to declare, not only that our policy in dealing with the Indian reserve generally, but with this St. Peter’s reserve in particular, has been both in its inception and its concept and its results, in the best interests of the Indians and of the country.”
Oliver made the comment that if the St. Peter’s Reserve surrender was invalid then all other surrenders of Indian land were also invalid, and the government was not about to accept such a conclusion.
St. Peter’s Band councillor James Williams testified before the 1911 Manitoba commission that no one had objected to the vote being taken, and that he had no objection to the surrender. Councillor W.H. Harper also denied receiving any funds or witnessed any irregularities associated with the vote.
But once the political situation changed, with the Conservatives replacing the Liberals as the government in Ottawa, the St. Peter’s case took a different path to resolution. In 1914, the federal government selected Fawcett Gowler Taylor, a Portage la Prairie lawyer, who became the leader of the Manitoba Conservative Party in 1922, and Charles Percy Fullerton, a Winnipeg lawyer, to take the case to the courts and with the intent to have the St. Peter’s surrender declared “void.”
“The annulment is the result of an almost continuous agitation which has existed since the public auction of the lands near Selkirk took place in December 1907. George H. Bradbury, M.P. for Selkirk (a Conservative),” according to the February 4, 1914, Free Press, “since his first election in 1908 has lead in the fight for cancellation. Nearly 35,000 acres are in the original reserve and there is promise of some legal research to trace back some of the parcels to those who bought at public auction in 1907. In some instances the property has changed hands several times.”
Bradbury had declared in September 1913: “It would be a crime against everything that is decent and fair as well as against the town of Selkirk to legalize this disgraceful transaction.”
Bradbury said on three occasions he had asked that the government take action to annul the surrender, and would “not be a party to any settlement which would legalize such a transaction.”
The legal action was to be instituted in the Manitoba courts. Oliver, who defended the surrender when he was the interior minister, questioned Dr. William James Roche, the new minister of the department, who was from Minnedosa, Manitoba, and represented Marquette riding, in the House of Commons on February 5, 1914, about why legal action was being taken.
Roche replied that the St. Peter’s question had been a vexed one for some time, and that a majority report of the royal commission appointed by the Manitoba government had declared the surrender invalid.
Roche also said the reason for legal action was the result of the refusal of land titles officials in Manitoba to register St. Peter’s land titles.
“After consultation among members of the government,” Roche added, “it has been deemed wise to enter acton in the Manitoba courts.”
“What is the nature of the action?” asked Oliver. “Against whom is it taken?”
“It is to find out if the surrender was a legal surrender,” the minister replied.
“But what is the nature of the action?” asked Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the former Liberal prime minister of Canada.
“To have the surrender declared null for various reasons,” responded Justice Minister C.J. Doherty. “The action will be taken by the attorney-general of Canada before the courts of Manitoba, since the lands concerned are Manitoba lands.”
“Why not before the supreme court of Canada?” an unidentified MP asked.
Doherty explained that the Manitoba courts seemed to be the proper place to begin legal action, although it was possible that the case could be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
By the time the lawyers were appointed to take the federal government’s position to the Manitoba Court of King’s Bench, about one-third of the original aboriginal residents remained on St. Peter’s Reserve land, while the remainder had moved north to Peguis Reserve.
On March 17, 1914, a delegation from Selkirk went to Ottawa asking that the St. Peter’s question be quickly resolved in favour of the new land holders. Their pleas went for naught, as the government was committed to resolving the “vexed question” in the courts.
“In the case, which will be one of the biggest questions of realty litigation ever tried in the Dominion, everyone involved in the land deals consequent upon the surrender of the reserve will be made a defendant, and action will be taken for the recovery of every parcel of land concerned,” according to the March 18, 1914, Free Press.
If the case went to the courts, it was projected it would take years to sort out the positions of over 500 individuals involved in St. Peter’s land transactions that had occurred since the original 1907 auction.
The RM of St. Clements passed a resolution in February 1915 urging the federal government to settle the “St. Peter’s Indian Reserve Question;” that is, titles to land, “without further delay.” The position taken by St. Clements was supported by the councils of the town of Selkirk and the RM of St. Andrew’s, and was endorsed by the Selkirk Board of Trade, which passed its own resolution.
The board of trade resolution stated the matter involved “40,000 acres of the finest land in the Red River valley, the future home and welfare of a band of Indians, an investment running into many thousands of dollars upon the part of a large number of men, and finally and principally the agricultural development of this body of land to the consequent improvement of business conditions through the entire province of Manitoba, (and) is too important to be the plaything of politicians forever ...
“The Selkirk district has lost eight years — eight years’ trade and development of Western Canada’s fastest growth, eight years which cannot be replaced,” ended the board of trade resolution.
In addition to resolutions urging action from Ottawa, meetings were held in Selkirk and Stonewall calling for the speedy sorting out of land titles on the former reserve.
The promise of a court case was the closest that the St. Peter’s Reserve came to being returned to the Ojibway. But it was not to be.
The St. Peter’s Reserve Act passed in 1916 by parliament brought an end to the court action, ratified the surrender and made the non-aboriginal land titles valid.
The federal government undoubtedly believed this was the only course of action available, since Selkirk and Manitoba voters would have been alienated and the compensation to the new landowners owed by Ottawa would have been in the neighbourhood of $2.5 million (Bradbury’s estimate). It was significantly easier for the government to confirm the surrender and land titles since the vast majority of former St. Peter’s aboriginal residents by 1916 were already far removed from the reserve.
Roche had no illusion that the course being taken of including an extra $1 per acre payment in the St. Peter’s Reserve Act didn’t really address the issue of the validity of the 1907 surrender. When the bill was introduced in the House of Commons, Roche said he had no doubt that the surrender was “illegal and fraudulent,” but the act was meant to obtain the best terms possible at “this late date without injuring innocent parties.”
Portage la Prairie MP and Solicitor General, Arthur Meighen, expressed the opinion that the lands were illegally obtained, but a compromise settlement was preferred to lengthy and expensive litigation that would undoubtedly wind its way to the Privy Council in London, England, which was then the final arbitrator of law in Canada.
“My family was among the first group of forty to leave (for the new reserve in 1909),” wrote Albert Edward Thompson in Chief Peguis and His Descendants, “travelling on the SS City of Selkirk and the SS Frederick. It was now July and no time was lost in making a start on the new homes, and collecting hay for the livestock ...
“I remember that there were thirty-six houses completed in 1909, and the rest of our Band came to the new Reserve at a later date.”
In 1933, a group of Ojibway from the Peguis Reserve attempted to reclaim land at the old St. Peter’s Reserve. In an August 18, 1933, letter, Angus Prince, the secretary and spokesman for “St. Peter’s Band of Indians,” said they “took possession of our tribal reserve of St. Peter’s ... of which we were deprived by the land buyers and also the government who have not fulfilled a great deal of promises.
“I would suggest also that we have been prevented to put up any hay for our stock in our reserve in St. Peter’s by the acting agent.”
The “grievances” of the “Saulteaux (Ojibway) Indians of St. Peter’s Reservation, Manitoba” had earlier been forwarded to King George V, who then forwarded the letter from Prince to the Canadian Governor General Lord Bessborough, who “ordered that it be referred to the superintendent general of Indian Affairs (T.O. Murphy) for consideration.”
Unfortunately for the families involved, their claims were not officially acknowledged. Instead, they were considered as squatters subject to ejection from the former reserve.
The group, which Prince said had been threatened by starvation at Peguis, attempted to settle on 3,000 acres of hay land that had been set aside for the use of Indians, according to the terms of the 1907 surrender.
Indian Agent G. Lavender of Fisher River (Peguis) refused to pay the annual treaty money to 35 of 125 families at St. Peter’s. The 35 families were the group that moved from Peguis in the spring of 1933.
“The 35 families were also treated disgracefully when the officials of the department of Indian Affairs denied them the privilege of cutting hay on some 3,000 acres of hay land in St. Peter’s reserve, the chief (Grey Eyes) added (Free Press, August 4, 1933). While the others were permitted to put up the hay for their livestock, the 35 families were stopped by R.C.M.P. when they attempted to prepare a winter store of reed for their horses and cattle, he said.
“We have been chased off, and permits to cut the hay have been given to white people,’ he declared.”
Not all the aboriginal families of the former St. Peter’s Reserve left for Peguis, as some didn’t sell off their land to non-natives that had been set aside for them under the terms of the surrender. Chief Alexander Grey Eyes represented those who stayed behind.
The chief also sided with the 17 men charged with trespassing when they appeared in Selkirk County Court. But to no avail, as on August 10, 1934, six of the men were sentenced to jail and the remainder either returned to the Peguis Reserve or moved elsewhere than St. Peter’s.
The infamous saga of the St. Peter’s Reserve Case was not resolved until 2008 when the Peguis First Nation accepted a $126-million federal settlement as compensation for being “illegally” uprooted from their homes in 1907, and then moved 220 kilometres north from fertile land to a location strewn with rocks and swamps.