By Lloyd Dolha
Senior government officials and land speculators conspired to defraud First Nations of the prairie provinces of thousands of acres of land in the late 1800s after the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.
After five years of a complicated and unique investigation of four separate, but intimately competing claims, the Indian Claims Commission has released recommendations that the federal government negotiate over “the improper removal” of nearly 60,000 acres or 24,000 hectares, of land from two Saskatchewan First Nations in the late 1800s.
It’s quite a story. Just after the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, the federal government negotiated adhesions to Treaty 5 and Treaty 6, early in September 1876 for the formation of Indian reserves, with the then James Smith Band (IR 100), the Cumberland Band (IR 20 and IR 100A), and the Chakastaypasin Band (IR 98), of the Prince Albert area.
The claims, submitted by the James Smith Cree Nation (JSCN) and the Cumberland House Cree Nation (CHCN), involve IR 98, 100 and 100A, as a result of the actions taken by the federal government in the wake of the 1885 Rebellion.
Three of the claims were submitted by the JSCN in the spring of 1999 and the fourth claim for some of the same land was received from the CHCN the following winter.
Some aspects of the claims flowed from the actions resulting from the signing of Treaty 5 and Treaty 6 in the mid-1870s and the allocations of reserve lands, while others involved the circumstances in surrenders later taken from the some of those same lands.
The separate but competing claims of the JSCN and the CHCN concern IR 100A. Indian Reserve 100A was originally surveyed in 1887 and confirmed by an Order-In-Council in 1889, “for the Indians of the Cumberland District (of Treaty No. 5).”
The Cumberland Band, represented by Chief John Cochrane and two headmen, Peter Chapman and Albert Flett, signed an adhesion to Treaty 5 on September 7, 1876.
Within two years of the signing and before they had been assigned reserve land at Cumberland House, the band requested reserve land close to Fort a la Corne, 259 kilometres to the southwest, where the land was more suitable to agriculture. This time the government was reluctant to do as Fort a la Corne was in the Treaty 6 area.
SaskSeven years earlier in 1882, some 2,200 acres were surveyed for the band at Cumberland Lake for IR 20. The lands were well short of the 11,000 acres the band was entitled to under Treaty 5, and there was little or no suitable agricultural land at IR 20. The demand for better land continued; as did concerns about placing Treaty 5 Indians in Treaty 6 territory.
Government gives in
By 1883, the government relented. Recognizing the 8,000-acre shortfall in the Cumberland House Band’s treaty land entitlement and the lack of agricultural land at Cumberland Lake, the government accepted the idea of a Treaty 5 reserve in Treaty 6 territory near Fort a la Corne.
In 1885, two townships were set aside near Fort a la Corne for the “Indians of Cumberland.” By 1887, the land was officially surveyed and 44,160 acres of IR 100A was allocated for the 345 Cumberland Band members using the Treaty 6 formula of 640 acres per family of five.
While the government may have expected the entire band to move to Fort a la Corne, only about one-third of them did, including Peter Chapman, who had resigned as headman of the Cumberland House Band. They settled in the northern portion of IR 100A and the people regarded Chapman as their leader. On a number of occasions, they requested their own chief and council, but were refused by government; their chief and council resided at IR 20.
Before and after the Northwest Rebellion, members of the Chakastaypasin Band from IR 98 were migrating to the new Cumberland reserve including the headman Kahtapiskowat. They set up their camps in the southern portion of IR 100A.
IR 98 was allocated for the Chakastaypasin in 1879. From the outset, there were complaints from nearby settlers over the fact that valuable timber resources on Sugar Island on the South Saskatchewan River were included in the reserve.
Members of the Chakastaypasin were branded as ‘rebels’ during the Northwest Rebellion, though no evidence existed to support that claim. Chief Chakastaypasin and his family as well as three other families were denied annuity payments for four years because they were seen as rebels.
Elders at the time said band members scattered to nearby reserves and their traditional hunting grounds at Carrot River near IR 100A after threats were made by the scouts involved in the uprising.
Though Chakastaypasin members dispersed to a number of bands in the area, Kahtapiskowat and many others relocated to the southern end of IR 100A. These Chakastaypasin members were never properly transferred to the Cumberland House Band, but two of them signed for surrender for the lower portion of IR 100A (20,080 acres) in 1902.
Chakastaypasin members were also involved in an agreement to amalgamate the remainder of IR 100A and the people living there with the James Smith Band at IR 100A. The consent of the entire Cumberland Band, those at IR 20 and IR 100A, was never sought or obtained.
The government of the day encouraged these transfers in the belief that if all Chakastaypasin members were living away from IR 98, they could take the land without the need for a formal surrender.
The improprieties surrounding the loss of the 60,000 acres were attributed to the slow communications of the day by a small and far-removed bureaucracy that did not adhere to the processes and procedures set out by both the treaties and the Indian Act.
But according to a special team of investigative researchers hired by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians (FSIN), in the late 1800s and early 1900s, government policies encouraged settlement for the purposes of building a national railway and creating the opportunity for settlement and implementing farming strategies that would establish an agricultural economy to replace the fur industry.
This national policy provided the opportunity for speculators and senior government officials to “speculate on Indian Lands by committing major fraud.”
Report uncovered fraud
These were the findings of the Ferguson Royal Commission in the early 1900s that inquired into illegal activities and reported its findings to parliament during World War 1 in 1914.
The Ferguson Commission findings included:
· Speculation and fraud committed by senior government officials including Mr. James A. Smart, Superintendent General of the Department of Interior responsible for Indian Affairs, and;
· Mr. Frank Peddly, Superintendent of Immigration, who was a former law partner of a Mr. Bedford Jones at a law firm in Toronto, Ontario;
· The Associates of Smart and Peddly, included both elected officials and other speculators on Indian lands. They created “dummy companies” in Omaha, Nebraska and Council Bluff, Iowa, in the United States, forged tender documents that were supposed to be sent from the two U.S. cities;
· Smart was responsible for declaring which reserves were to be open for “public auction” and the list included: the Pheasant Rump Reserve (Southern Saskatchwan); the Ocean Man Reserve (Southern Saskatchewan); the Chakastatpasin Reserve; the Peter Chapman, Cumberland 100A reserve.
Commissioner Ferguson found the main fraud and theft were committed by the senior government officials and their associates, on Indian lands that included the four reserves, and others in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Through the fraud scam they acquired approximately 412,000 acres of reserve land in Saskatchewan. The senior government officials unlawfully displaced members of bands by unilaterally transferring the members to other bands “Without any consent” from the members of the respective bands and the host bands.
Bedford Jones associate, Mr. Smith, forged all the tender documents for the Chakastatypasin reserve. Mr. Smith also forged several documents for the Cumberland 100A reserve.
The Indian Claims Commission has recommended the federal government accept all claims for negotiation with the James Smith Cree Nation and the Cumberland House Cree Nation. The ICC says none of what happened was legal or valid.
“There were a number of unique circumstances surrounding these claims,” said Chief Commissioner Renee Dupluis, who chaired the panel. ” This was the first time we had two bands bringing claims for the same piece of land. In another case, the claim was submitted on behalf of a band that no longer exists.”
Negotiator for the bands, Sol Sanderson, said it in stronger terms.
“That fraud activity went from Manitoba, Saskatchewan through Alberta,” says Sanderson. “So what the three bands have achieved here today is going to have a major impact on many other bands across this province and in other provinces.”
The Chakastaypasin and the Peter Chapman group want their bands legally reinstated and their separate land claims settled.
Sanderson said none of the bands would be content with only cash; but to see the return of the stolen lands. Those lands are in the diamond-rich Fort a la Corne area. The claims commission says cash is the usual compensation.
Speaking for the Cumberland House Cree Nation, Chief Walter Sewap said, “While Canada agreed that my First Nation had a claim, we could not get Canada to agree on the nature of the claim. Canada now has the report of this independent body agreeing with the points which we have tried to make for years.”