Two votes, two different results — Peguis land compensation still unresolved

by Bruce Cherney 

Ninety-nine years ago the claim was that not enough members of the St. Peter’s reserve were on hand to make a legitimate vote possible to allow a land surrender. Today, the claim is that not enough members of Peguis First Nation were on hand to vote to accept compensation for the “bad deal” that had 

occurred 99 years ago.

Peguis First Nation recently held a vote on a compensation package of $64-million and 55,000-acres of Crown land — the largest Manitoba aboriginal land settlement in the province’s history. But, the package did not receive approval from the reserve’s residents because only 1,379 of 3,529 eligible voters bothered to show up at the polls for what making observers have termed a “good deal,” especially when the amount of land involved is taken into consideration. Despite receiving plenty of notice, the resulting 39 per cent turnout was well short of the 51 per cent required to hold a legal vote.

In 1907, the Ojibway were given notice on September 21 of the September 23 meeting with federal officials  which was a clear contravention of the  Indian Act. Because of the short notice,  many of the eligible voters who were fishing on Lake Winnipeg never heard about the meeting. 

Also,the school used for the meeting was  so small that it had room for only half of the 200 band members who were able to attend. 

It was a result of voting irregularities instigated by federal officials that the St. Peter’s surrender was made possible — a black episode in Manitoba’s history.

In recent years, aboriginal people  have begun to reassert their demands  for land claim settlements, as well as  recognition of their rights and their place in the formation of Canada. 

In 1998, the federal government recognized that numbered treaty obligations  in Western Canada had not been completely fulfilled. In an effort to address its obligations, Ottawa instituted the Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE) process in which Crown land and money for the purchase of private land was offered to First Nations. Peguis First Nation, whose ancestors signed Treaty No. 1 in 1871, became a participant in the TLE program. The proposed compensation package resulted from negotiations with Ottawa and the vote a week ago would have finally closed an unsavory chapter in the province’s history.

The Peguis First Nation land claims was formally initiated in 1976, and restarted a decade ago by Chief Louis Stevenson. The Peguis First Nation now lives on a 75,000-acre reserve along the Fisher River, 14 kilometres north of Fisher Branch. 

Up until 1907, Peguis natives controlled the St. Peter’s Indian Reserve, which encompassed a portion of East Selkirk and land north along the Red River. 

Treaty No.1 gave the Ojibway band the St. Peter’s reserve. When Chief Henry Prince signed the treaty in 1871 on behalf of his people, the St. Peter’s reserve contained a large portion of prime agricultural land. Unfortunately for the band, the possession of this land  would be their undoing. 

The land deals that saw Peguis aboriginals lose their land started in 1896, but gained momentum when Frank Oliver, an Edmonton cabinet minister in the Sir Robert Borden Conservative government, became the minister responsible for Western Canada and superintendent-general of Indian Affairs.

In 1906, Oliver said his department was making efforts to acquire surrenders of “surplus” aboriginal land in the West. “If it becomes a question between the Indians and whites, the interests of the whites will have to be provided for...,” he added.

In the same year a new provision was made in the Indian Act that allowed up to 50 per cent of the proceeds from a surrender and sale to be immediately distributed to band members. This was the provision that was used in the St. Peter’s land surrender the next year.

 Oliver’s philosophy was reinforced when Parliament passed an amendment to the Indian Act in 1911, allowing expropriation by order of the court of any native reserve near a town or city of 8,000, regardless of any previous agreement. This provision became known as the “Oliver Act.” The provision passed in Parliament despite the knowledge that it could lead to a breach of treaty rights.

Oliver said that reserves blocking urban growth had to be eliminated, as aboriginal rights “must give away to the public interest.”

He also said: “For while we believe that the Indian, having a certain treaty right, is entitled ordinarily to stand upon that right and get the benefit of it, yet we believe also that there are certain circumstances and conditions in which the Indian by standing on his treaty rights does himself ultimate injury as well as does an injury to the white people, whose interests are brought into immediate conjunction with the interests of the Indians.”

Oliver’s comments reflected the paternalistic attitude toward aboriginals common for the era.

The 1911 provision contained in the  “Oliver Act” was not repealed until 1951.

The Indian Settlement, as it was commonly called in the 1800s, was established by Chief Peguis who led his Ojibway (Saulteaux) people west from the Sault Ste. Marie area between 1790 and 1795 and settled near Netley Creek, where he developed a friendship with the Hudson’s Bay Company and later with the Selkirk settlers. In recognition of the support provided by Peguis, Lord Selkirk signed the treaty in 1817 that gave settlers land along the Red and Assiniboine rivers near The Forks of the two rivers. 

When Treaty No.1 was signed, Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald said: “Your Great Mother (Queen Victoria) wishes the good of all races under her sway. She wishes her red children to be happy and contented. She wishes them to live in comfort. She would like them to adopt the habits of the whites, to till the land and raise food, and store it up against a time of want. She thinks this would be the best thing for her red children to do, that it would make them safer from famine and distress and make their homes comfortable ...” 

After a stone church was built in 1853, the community became known as St. Peter’s and then in 1876, the surname Dynevor was added. 

By 1850, St. Peter’s had 500 people living within its boundaries and about 230 acres under cultivation. In the late 1870s, there were over 2,000 acres under cultivation. 

At the turn of the 20th century, the federal Department of Indian Affairs regarded St. Peter’s as one of the most splendid examples of their work. 

According to Indian agent Muckle, the people of St. Peter’s in 1885 compared favourably with European settlements along the Red and Assiniboine in their agricultural pursuits, implements, housing and clothing, and that St. Peter’s people were “more prosperous and made more money in a year than thousands of people in the older provinces.” 

Besides agriculture, residents also went duck hunting and fishing. Even today, the Netley marsh is noted for its large waterfowl populations and excellent fishing. Band members made as much as $15 to $40 per week in cash through the sale of fish. In 1901, furs sold by the band totalled over $1,000. 

Although the merchants of Selkirk were direct beneficiaries of the band’s prosperity, it did not stop them from promoting the sale of the reserve. “Devise some means of bursting the reserve ... and your name will be immortalized,” a leading Selkirk citizen, James Colcleugh, wrote in an 1883 letter to Lisgar MP A.W. Ross. 

Attitudes towards aboriginal farming were changing. In 1889, Indian commissioner Hayter Reed announced that aboriginal farmers were to emulate “peasants of various countries.” 

Reed said the intent was “to make each family cultivate such quantity of land as they can manage with such implements as they alone can possess for long enough after being thrown upon their own resources.” To fulfill his plan, Reed told implement dealers that Indian Affairs would no longer be liable for equipment debts. 

Natives were also only grudgingly given permits to sell their grain, and were asked to first pay for implements if indebted. The Virden Chronicler claimed that natives through the “obnoxious order are not allowed the full benefit of the fruit of their labour.” 

The Selkirk Board of Trade circulated a petition demanding the federal government organize the sale of the reserve. Land at St. Peter’s was also disputed by those that had held patented lots prior to the survey of the reserve. 

In 1906, Hector Howell, Chief Justice of the Manitoba Court of Appeal, was appointed to look into the land claims and to report on the advisability of a land surrender. Among his recommendations was that an additional 1,000 acres of land be patented. 

Howell was of the opinion that the band should “get off that reserve,” which he felt had become “a black spot.” In his wisdom, Howell said anyone who “loves the Indian” knows that the reserve was too close to civilization, and he knew these people and their wants, because he had “been down at the mouth of the river shooting for 14 years.” 

In a letter to Oliver, Howell described the  reserve as a “pestilence.” He held three meetings with the St. Peter’s band members who refused to surrender their land. In one instance, a band member told Howell that: “We will have none of your bait. We will not leave our land.” 

After the third meeting, the St. Peter’s band refused to meet with the chief justice again. 

Howell’s next tactic was to suggest to Oliver that financial promises be used as bait. He proposed that a vote meeting be set up before the beginning of the trapping season, as: “This is their hungry time. This is the period when the present payment of money is a powerful factor with the improvident.” 

The Ojibway were given notice on September 21 of the September 23, 1907, meeting. The school used for the meeting was so small that it had room for only half of the 200 band members who attended. Those unable to gain entrance failed to adequately hear the speakers, and the translation from English to Ojibway was decidedly poor. 

William Asham, a well-educated Ojibway who attended the meeting, and later left a full account of its proceedings, found out that $5,000 was being offered for the land, which he considered outrageous. But, he discovered that the chief and council had been bribed to sway the people to accept the offer. 

Despite all the tactics of the officials, the band members were still against the surrender. Asham demanded a vote be taken. Instead, the officials called for the  meeting to be reconvened the next day. 

During the interval, natives were bribed with whiskey and cash to accept the surrender. When the meeting reconvened, some of those who had previously been against the surrender were suddenly found to be in favour. 

The band members were asked to stand on one or the other side to demonstrate their vote. It was later found that there was a great deal of confusion in separating the people into a row for the surrender and a row against the surrender. 

At this stage, Rev. Semmons, the Clandeboye 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. 

Asham protested , saying Semmons should have said, “You who want to surrender the reserve go to one side.” 

To make the offer all the more attractive, Pedley had a satchel containing $5,000 placed on the speaker’s table in full view of those voting. It was made clear that if the surrender was successful, the money would be distributed, but if not, the “satchel and its precious contents would go back to Ottawa.” 

Band member Fred Cameron told the 1911 St. Peter’s Reserve Royal Commission, established to investigate the land surrender, that he was approached  by Rev. Semmons, who said that if he voted for the surrender, he would receive $4.50 for each of his eight family members, $90 in cash a year after the surrender, as well as 16 acres of land per head along with the 120 acres granted outright to each family. 

“When he finished figuring he said, ‘Now, you will be well-off getting all this, now will you surrender?’ and I said, ‘No, I would not’.” 

When the vote was finally taken, 107 were said to be in favour of surrender with 98 against. But, the final tally was very much in doubt, as there were no official records made of those who voted for or against. 

Asham had attempted to count the votes. He started counting the nay-side and moved to the yea-side, but was stopped by officials, who said that side had already been counted. 

“I did not know who counted the other side, and they claimed they had a majority of seven. I was astonished to hear that and sized up the two sides and satisfied myself that there was a larger number standing on my side.” 

The vote itself was not legal according to the Indian Act, since it did not show a band majority. There were 223 adult males in the band entitled to vote, which represents a simple majority of112. Clearly, a vote of 107 did not represent a majority. 

In spite of all the irregularities of the vote, it was immediately accepted by the federal government, and an order-in-council on October 14, 1907 declared the surrender. There were protests in Parliament and accusations of fraud, but they went for naught. 

In Parliament, it was affirmed that the land was being sold to settlers for eight to 10 times more than the natives had been given. 

In 1911, Asham and 60 band members petitioned Manitoba Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin, challenging the validity of the surrender and asked that no titles be granted to purchasers until the matter was investigated. As a result of the challenge, the Manitoba registrar of titles refused to grant titles until the matter was resolved. This prompted the federal government to appoint a royal commission, which was carried out with surprising speed. 

The royal commission concluded that the surrender was illegal because the government officials had followed improper and unfair voting procedures, and that the terms of surrender were altered after the vote.  

The findings of the royal commission were ignored. Lobbying by white settlers, who occupied the former reserve land, resulted in the federal government passing the St. Peter’s Reserve Act, which confirmed title to the purchasers of the land. The vote on the act quietly took place in May 1916, while the nation was preoccupied by the First World War. 

After the surrender, St. Peter’s land was sold for just $5 an acre, far below its market value as prime agricultural land. The proceeds, which were given to the band members, resulted in the natives receiving half of what they had been originally promised.