Decades after the File Hills settlement scheme divided the Peepeekisis Cree Nation into “original” and “settlement”, community members say a federal government apology could be a quick step towards healing the divisions.
This week, Crown and Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller apologized to the nation on behalf of the Canadian government for implementing the colony which was considered a social experiment and was, in many ways, a form of assimilation.
The colony gradually took land from the nation, without consent, offering indigenous “graduates” chosen by leaders from the residential and industrial schools of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. These residents are often called “settlers”.
By 1906, only 29 percent of the original 26,600 acres of land remained for the country’s original inhabitants. Peepeekisis Cree Nation is located about 100 kilometers northeast of Regina.
It deliberately divided the two communities.
More than it will help us reconcile with Canada, I think it will help us reconcile within our nation.– Sara Poitras, who has family roots in Peepeekisis
“For the longest time it’s always been seen as two reserves in one,” said CheyanneDesnomie, a member of Peepeekisis and a researcher at the University of Regina.
“You had people brought in and under the direction of the Indian agent they were told not to communicate with the original members who were there because it was thought that if they did they might withdraw and … undo anything that had been ‘taught’. or ‘ acquired’ in the residential school period.”
Desnomies said the community has an “identity crisis” because while it is called the “Cree Nation,” many people were brought into the community from outside and may have other backgrounds, such as Lakota or Mtis.
Desnomies said this apology could be quick to heal the rift that was created in the community.
Gregory Brass was born in the colony and spent many of his formative years there. He’s not sure if he would consider himself a place of work since his grandfather was sent there as a Cree and Saulteaux interpreter, only to later receive farmland.
“It’s often been assumed that the settlements did that to the originals. Well, that wasn’t the case; it was the federal government with its experiment that imposed that on the total population,” he said.
He felt the government’s apology was vague, but at least it puts the conversation back on the table.
Brass isn’t the only one unsure of his roots.
“Unfortunately, I’m not 100 percent positive where my family comes from,” Sara Poitras, an elementary school teacher with family roots in Peepeekisis, said earlier this week when Miller apologized.
“I think there are a lot of us who are from Peepeekisis who don’t know where we come from, where our families originate from, because of this experiment.”
She later spoke to CBC News and said the apology was important in addressing the divide in the country, describing it as “the original members versus the placements.”
“More than it will help us reconcile with Canada, I think it will help us reconcile within our nation.”
History of the File Hills Colony
The story of the colony depends on who tells it, Desnomie said. Some oral histories say the colony began around 1898, while some written histories place the colony’s beginning closer to 1906. The end of the colony has the same historical uncertainty, Desnomie said, but it appears to have been destroyed sometime around the 1950s.
Afternoon Edition – Sask9:08The Government of Canada apologizes to a Saskatchewan First Nation
William Morris Graham, an Indian agent, was the architect of what appears to be the only social experiment of its kind, albeit an unethical one.
Documents from the Indian Claims Commission described it as a way “to further the education of the Indians and their assimilation to the non-Indian way of life.
“Indian agent Graham strictly controlled the daily lives of members of the Peepeekisis group.”
Desnomie described it as the colonizer’s attempt to create a “utopian agrarian population”.
She’s been researching the colony scheme for about a decade, but even then she’s not sure what would repair the permanent damage caused by nearly half a century of colony operations and another 35 years of legal battles.
A long overdue apology
In August 2021, the federal government announced it had completed negotiations with the nation, leading to a $150 million payment and the option to purchase 18,720 acres of land to add to the reserve.
“An apology means nothing if there is no action behind it,” Desnomie said.
Freda Koochikum worked on the File Hills Colony Claim, which was first filed in 1986 and later found that Canada had breached its legal obligations to the group.
She agreed that “when apologizing, there is always something to be done, something more to be done.”
Desnomie said a step forward would be to secure the nation’s land without having to pay for it.
Colin Stonechild, a leader of Peepeekisis, said during a news conference Wednesday that the nation would pursue adding land to the reserve.
Poitras said she doesn’t know “what needs to happen, but it just doesn’t feel accomplished or settled to me.”
“We can never get back what we’ve lost.”
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