by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
To justify the surrender of the St. Peter’s Reserve, the October 1, 1907, Manitoba Free Press commented that: “The best people of the town (Selkirk) ... have for a long time felt that the presence of the morally indifferent element of the St. Peter’s band was rather detrimental to the higher interests of the community...”
Furthermore, Selkirk’s best people “not infrequently suggested ... a permanent removal of the submerged class, to some favorable location so as to preserve more effectually the reputation of the town.”
According to the newspaper, the “moral delinquency ... of a certain element of the St. Peter’s People,” resulted from their “proximity to the town of West Selkirk ... That is to say, they were near to a large centre of civilization, a town where intoxicating liquors could be obtained through the aid of unprincipled middlemen who were ever ready to make a profit out of clandestine deals. So far this has gone that those who were cognizant of all the facts saw the necessity of some radical move for the protection of the Indians, so as to avoid wide reaching and disastrous results.”
Essentially, it was inconceivable, and there was no will, to remove the “unprincipled middlemen” as long as the more favoured option existed to relocate the reserve in order to allegedly “protect” the Indians.
While the residents of Selkirk sought to preserve the so-called “reputation” of their town by having the reserve relocated, the primary issue — besides outright racism and the desire to divest the Ojibway (Saulteaux) of their prime agricultural land — was the muddle of land patents (first titles to land) that complicated the settlement of long-standing claims made by natives and non-natives at St. Peter’s. The St. Peter’s band members wanted the “outsiders” evicted, while the non-native occupants of reserve land wanted confirmation that they legally held title to their property.
When Chief Henry Prince signed Treaty No. 1 on August 3, 1870, the terms included “that of, at the date of execution of this treaty, there are any settlers within the bounds of any lands reserved by any band, Her Majesty reserves the right to deal with such settlers as She will deem just, so as not to diminish the extent of land allotted to the Indians.”
“For over thirty years there has been dissatisfaction over the lands of St. Peter’s reserve,” reported the October 1 Free Press. “The government on the one hand have been issuing patents and withholding titles without sufficiently determining all the facts involved while the natives and original claimants have kept up an ineffectual murmuring until there had arisen a confusion which had become more confusing” over the years.
The titles were withheld by the Manitoba Land Titles office until such time as the federal government resolved the question of ownership on the reserve.
It was federal Interior Minister and Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Frank Oliver, who emphasized a land surrender by appointing a commission to investigate all claims to St. Peter’s land. Instructions to Indian Affairs officials, preceding the appointment of the commission, made it quite clear that the favoured resolution to the “St. Peter’s Reserve case” was a land surrender.
While it is now understood that the federal government has a fiduciary duty to protect the land within reserves and shelter aboriginal people from exploitive land transactions, such was not the case at the start of the 20th century. In fact, Oliver continually sought land surrenders across the prairies in instances that reserves were deemed to be too close to “civilization.” From 1896 to 1911, all or portions of 25 prairie reserves, including Swan Lake (1908), The Pas (1906) and Roseau River (1903) in Manitoba, were surrendered and the land then auctioned off to non-aboriginals.
The surrenders involved 21 per cent of the land that had originally been set aside for aboriginal people through treaties one through seven. But even this was not enough to satisfy Oliver, who felt that the quantities of land reserved for bands under the prairie treaties was “in excess of the amount contemplated by treaty.”
“Oliver informed the House (of Commons) that fully one-third of the treaty reserve base in the three Prairie Provinces should be considered excess land on this basis” (First Nations Land Surrenders on the Prairies, 1896-1911, by Peggy Martin-McQuire, prepared for the Indian Claims Commission, September 1998).
It was Oliver’s policy to have the “excess land” deemed as “surplus” to the needs of band members, whenever such land abutted a white community or farming district, and then have Indian Affairs officials organize land surrenders so that these lands could be sold to non-aboriginals.
With such a mandate in place, many of the surrenders were obtained by federal officials using rather dubious practices.
Politicians often ignored native concerns in favour of voters and powerful individuals living in nearby communities. “The Indian wards of the state did not have the same economic and political clout,” wrote Sarah Carter in the article, An Infamous Proposal: Prairie Indian Reserve Land and Soldier Settlement after World War I, Manitoba History, Spring/Summer 1999, “as they were not permitted to vote, and thus their interests were more easily set aside.”
A November 5, 1906, letter from the Interior department to J.D. McLean was quite forthright in telling officials at Indian Affairs that it was “understood” that the Peguis band would “willingly execute the necessary (my emphasis) surrender.”
An order in council, dated November 22, 1906, appointed Hector Howell, the Chief Justice of the Manitoba Court of Appeal, as the commissioner charged to investigate the land question at St. Peter’s.
According to the order in council, it was necessary to first settle what lands the band was entitled to under the terms of Treaty No. 1, “and then settling what compensation should be made to its members for lands granted from it after the date of the Treaty (August 3, 1871). Letters Patent would have (been) issued long ago for many of the parcels of land for which claim has for years been made and yet is being made.
“The Minister (Oliver) further submits that, not only, therefore, it’s now necessary to consider such unsettled claims to lands, but it is necessary to finally settle the total area of the Reserve, and the total area of portions thereof which have been granted out of it or which may yet have to be granted out of it to satisfy the claims to lands therein of others than Indians, and for which compensation should be made to them ... It may also be necessary to consider the advisability and necessity of obtaining from the members of the band a surrender of all ungranted lands in the Reserve and of setting aside other lands as a Reserve.”
When Chief Justice Hector Howell was appointed to investigate the “vexed” question of the muddled land titles at the St. Peter’s Reserve, he selected lawyer O.M. Clark to represent the St. Peter’s band and F. Heap, a Selkirk attorney, to represent the non-aboriginal claimants occupying river lots in the reserve.
Howell held discussions in Selkirk and at St. Peter’s, which, besides representatives from the two communities, involved Indian Commissioner David Laird, Indian Inspector John Semmens and Indian Agent J.O. Lewis of Selkirk.
Chief William Prince and Peguis band councillors, as well as Laird, were opposed to a land surrender, but Howell persisted and convinced them to attend other “informal” talks. What the chief and councillors told Howell was that they only wanted a resolution of their complaints about river lots and compensation for the land lost through patents being issued by Manitoba Land Titles officials.
But Howell was of the opinion that the band should “get off that reserve,” which he felt had become a “black spot.” Howell said anyone who “loves the Indian” knows that the reserve was too close to civilization, and he knew their needs, because he had “been down at the north of (Red) river shooting for 14 years.”
During one rejection of Howell’s proposals, a band member said: “We will have none of your bait. We will not leave our land.”
At a July 1907 meeting, Howell “left the chair in a rage,” according to testimony from William Sinclair, a reserve resident, at a 1911 investigation into the validity of the surrender (Free Press, July 25, 1911). Howell became incensed by a question from “an Indian,” said Sinclair, which was: “There have been in the past time and time again official of the Indian department coming before us with authority to make promises. Finally these promises we have never seen to this very day. Now, I understand, you are making promises on your own responsibility. Can we rely on them?”
According to Sinclair’s testimony, the interpreter had botched the translation to imply that Howell was lying, so the enraged chief justice stormed out of the meeting.
Still the question was a valid one, as Howell could not act on his own authority, but had to have the blessing of Oliver and Indian Affairs to make specific promises.
On numerous occasions, the chief and councillors rejected Howell’s entreaties for a land surrender, including a new proposal of generous compensation that had been advocated by Oliver during a trip to Winnipeg.
An August 10, 1907, letter from Howell to Oliver contained a list of demands from Chief Prince and two councillors that would lead to a land surrender and a relocation to a new reserve, which included: the granting of individual patents to heads of families totalling half the reserve’s acreage (more for chiefs and councillors), the retention of approximately 3,000 acres for hay land within the reserve; the balance of land in St. Peter’s then would be offered for sale, with half of the proceeds to be paid immediately and the remainder invested, with interest paid annually; and 75,000 acres for a reserve in another location (Indian Claims Commission [ICC], Peguis First Nation Inquiry, March 2001, and Free Press, August 23, 1907).
The band also wanted the release of funds from an earlier surrender of land called the “Mile Square,” which they believed amounted to $5,000. Frank Pedley, the deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs, was asked by Howell to release these funds, but Pedley refused, citing that it contravened the original terms of the land surrender. Instead, Pedley said the funds could be applied to improvements in a new reserve in the event of a St. Peter’s land surrender.
Howell’s next tactic was to suggest to Oliver that financial incentives be used to organize a surrender vote before the beginning of the trapping season. “This is their hungry time,” he told Oliver. “This is the period when the present payment of money is a powerful factor with the improvident.”
Pedley, Howell and other Indian Affairs then held another meeting with Chief Prince and Peguis councillors on September 20, 1907, during which an agreement was reached to hold a land surrender meeting with the band members. The surrender was announced for September 23, but only one day was allowed for the posting of notices at several churches to inform reserve residents of the impending vote.
“It later became clear that many band members did not see the notices, as they were absent from the reserve or did not attend church services on that day,” according to the 2001 ICC report on the Peguis land surrender. “Nonetheless, on the day of the meeting, more than 200 band members arrived at the old schoolhouse on the reserve, the designated location of the meeting. As the building could hold at most 100 people, the rest remained outdoors and could not hear the proceedings.”
The Free Press on October 1, 1907, claimed Pedley, who chaired the meeting, “was warmly welcomed.”
“For nearly two days the debate continued. The arguments pro and con were of a very high order, but the best of good temper prevailed. Ample time was allowed for asking any questions upon which information was desired. No one could have been more clear in statement or more patient under provocation than the deputy minister (Pedley) presiding, and his rare tact and good judgment influenced the debaters to reach a specific agreement.”
Actually, it has since be argued that the tactics used by Pedley and others to arrive at the “specific agreement” were somewhat questionable in nature. The fact that it took two days to arrange the land surrender provides evidence that the process was not as smooth as reported by the newspaper.
William Asham, a band member and ex-chief who attended the meeting and later left an account of its proceedings, found out that $5,000 was being offered for the land, which he considered outrageous. He alleged that the chief and councillors had been bribed by federal officials to sway the people to accept the offer.
In fact, Pedley had let it be known that he had $5,000 in cash with him to be distributed once the surrender was approved.
According to his testimony before the 1911 Manitoba Royal commission on the surrender, Pedley said that he had advised those attending the meeting that the funds were not from the Mile Square surrender, but, instead, represented an advance on anticipated sale proceeds from the proposed 1907 surrender. Pedley also advised the meeting that the reserve land could be sold for $10 per acre and that each band member would receive $90 from that sale.
Asham attempted to make the English-language proceedings of the meeting known by providing his own translation to band members. Later, the Manitoba commission into the surrender found other translations about the terms of the land surrender were sketchy at best.
During the first day, Asham demanded a vote be taken, but realizing the surrender was not as popular as they hoped, Pedley and the chief and council decided to reconvene the meeting the next day.
“When the meeting resumed the next day, Asham discovered that the tide had turned and that much of the previous day’s support for this position had evaporated (ICC, 2001). Discussion resumed on many of the same issues that had been heard the day before, until Pedley suggested that a vote be held after lunch.”
In the meantime, Asham later related that he had been approached with the suggestion that he would receive the same amount of land as a councillor, which was significantly greater than the 80 acres offered to each family of five.
After a brief speech by Prince promoting the surrender, the vote was held outside the schoolhouse.
The band members were asked to stand on one side or another to indicate their vote. At this stage, Semmens, the Indian agent, and a shareholder in the Selkirk Land and Investment Company, shouted out in Cree: “Which of you want $90 go over there,” while pointing to the affirmative side where the chief and councillors stood.
Asham protested this action, but to no avail.
(Next week: part 3)