Current Problems

Treaties and Land Claims

How Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals grabbed reserve lands in the Prairie west

September 30, 2023
James Smart (deputy minister of Interior and Indian Affairs), William White (inpsector of US immigration agencies), and Frank Pedley (superintendent of immigration) a trio of government officials who abused their positions to make the equivalent of roughly $2-million in today’s currency by secretly acquiring most of two Nakoda reserves totalling 182 square kilometres in present-day Saskatchewan. The three were never held to account.HANDOUT

Bill Waiser and Jennie Hansen are historians based in Saskatchewan and co-authors of Cheated: The Laurier Liberals and the Theft of First Nations Reserve Land.

The Globe and Mail: Contributed by BILL WAISER AND JENNIE HANSEN

In June of last year, at Alberta’s Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood next to Chief Ouray Crowfoot and signed a staggering $1.3-billion land-claim settlement with the Siksika First Nation of Treaty 7.

Canada, Mr. Trudeau acknowledged, had failed to honour a 1910 agreement. In exchange for surrendering 40 per cent of their reserve (or 465 square kilometres), the Siksika had been promised food for themselves and future generations. That assistance was never provided.

“We are gathered today to right a wrong from the past,” an apologetic Mr. Trudeau said, “to start rebuilding trust between us.”

This settlement and others before it are generally regarded as little more than a disgraceful footnote in the relationship between Canada and Indigenous people. In fact, when historical reserve surrenders make news, it typically sparks questions about why First Nations are being compensated for something that happened more than a century ago, especially when formal surrender agreements were in place.

But just as the terrible legacy of Canada’s residential-school system is being recognized today, so too must we interrogate the role of Mr. Trudeau’s predecessor, Liberal prime minister Wilfrid Laurier, whose government determinedly pushed to secure the full or partial surrender of reserves promised in the treaty agreements.

In August, 1876, at treaty negotiations at Fort Carlton, in what is now Saskatchewan, Indian commissioner Alexander Morris gave the Cree what sounded like a considerate warning: Thousands of prospective homesteaders would soon invade the country, so the Cree needed to select their reserves and have them surveyed by the government, to prevent white settlement.

Four months earlier, Alexander Mackenzie’s Liberal government passed the Indian Act, which effectively defined First Nations as dependants and gave Indian Affairs the authority to regulate their lives through various means, including where they lived, by setting aside parcels of reserve land as part of treaty agreements. But the legislation also included regulations for the surrender of these First Nations reserves. Even though the western treaty agreements were not yet completed, and the process of setting aside lands for many treaty bands hadn’t even started, section 26 of the law indicated that the Canadian government was already preparing for a day when First Nations were assimilated or simply disappeared, and no longer required separate reserves.

In that context, Morris’s vows hardly seemed sincere. “It is your own,” he promised, referring to the reserved lands, or iskomkan – Cree for “that which is kept back” – that would be held in trust by the Queen. “No one will interfere with you … as long as the Indians wish it … no one can take their homes.”

Still, Morris urged the Cree to select their reserves quickly. “Now unless the places where you would like to live are secured soon,” he counselled, “there might be difficulty. The white man might come and settle on the very place where you would like to be.”

Despite the apparent urgency to get treaty bands to take up reserve land, Indian Affairs practised “the strictest possible economy” in meeting its treaty obligations, according to one government official. In 1878, there was only one Indian agent for the entire Treaty 6 area, which spanned nearly 675,000 square kilometres. Canada also failed to devote adequate resources to surveying reserves to fulfill its treaty obligations. As of 1880, Indian Affairs employed just two field surveyors: one who worked in Treaty 6 territory, and the other in Treaty 4 and 7 territories combined. Many treaty bands consequently would not have their reserves surveyed until the early to mid-1880s. This delay left many Prairie First Nations vulnerable when the bison disappeared from the northern plains in 1879.

Indian Affairs was able to better manage Prairie First Nations on reserves, including keeping them apart from white settlers through the controversial pass system, instituted after the 1885 North-West Resistance, which required Indigenous people to have a travel document to leave their reserves. If hungry bands wanted relief provisions, they would have to relocate to reserves. And if they wanted to be fed there, they had to “work for rations.”

But reserves quickly assumed an importance to First Nations that few probably anticipated at treaty time. Reserves provided security of tenure, sanctuary in the face of settler encroachment, but above all a sense of identity and community. They were places where First Nations always returned, where families gathered to share stories, where traditional cultural and spiritual practices were observed, and where the dead were buried.

Because successive federal governments wanted Prairie First Nations settled and confined, only one reserve – Papaschase, in 1888 – was surrendered in the two decades after the passage of the Indian Act.

That changed dramatically when the Laurier Liberals assumed power in 1896.

While in Opposition from 1878 to 1896, the Liberals had constantly complained about government spending on Indian Affairs. During the budget debate in April, 1882, for example, David Mills – a Liberal member of Parliament who had previously served as a minister in Mackenzie’s cabinet – sarcastically claimed that “the Indians have become pensioners upon the Public Treasury.”

So in 1896, the new Liberal government was expected to slash the Indian Affairs budget; instead, it transformed the department into a machine for expropriating reserves. During Laurier’s 15 years in office, more than 2,000 square kilometres of land set aside under treaty in Western Canada – 21 per cent of reserve land – was surrendered under section 26 of the Indian Act.

This policy shift was justified on the grounds that First Nations didn’t make proper use of their reserve land and, consequently, it should be taken over by settlers. But there was no need at the time to pursue surrenders. Non-reserve land could have been easily secured for settlement elsewhere in the Prairie west. But it represented an opportunity for Liberal friends and associates – even patronage appointees – to make a small fortune by buying and holding surrendered reserved lands, even while payments to the bands were rerouted, delayed or defaulted.

In this 1910 cartoon for the Daily News (Toronto) Newton McConnell portrayed Edmonton MP Frank Oliver as a desperado for his handling of the St. Peter’s (Peguis) surrender.PUBLIC ARCHIVES OF ONTARIO

Reserve surrenders were largely initiated by parliamentarians and Indian Affairs officials rather than by the bands themselves. Indeed, the loudest cheerleader was Frank Oliver, an MP from Edmonton. He believed, as if it was sacred gospel, that Prairie reserves were “more valuable for the purposes of white men … they should be thrown open for settlement as soon as possible.” Oliver, who became minister of the interior and superintendent-general of Indian Affairs in 1905, would choose corruption over duty when he surreptitiously secured part of the Michel reserve outside Edmonton. When the sale of Michel land came up in the House of Commons, he never denied culpability.

Rampant speculation in Prairie reserves could also never have happened without a co-operative Indian Affairs bureaucracy, which narrowly interpreted or simply ignored the surrender provisions of the Indian Act. In fact, a trio of department officials – James Smart, Frank Pedley and William White – abused their positions to make the equivalent of roughly $2-million in today’s currency by secretly acquiring most of two Nakoda reserves (Ocean Man and Pheasant Rump) totalling 182 square kilometres in present-day Saskatchewan. The three were never held to account.

There are long-standing myths that First Nations failed to make reserves their home, and that their land was needed by settlers; these notions persist to this day. But that should be stood on its head. It was the Laurier government that failed them by not honouring its treaty obligations and Indian Act commitments in order to aggressively pursue reserve surrenders. They saw nothing wrong or dishonest with what they were doing, and never appeared to worry how surrenders would be detrimental to a band’s prospects. As Oliver resolutely claimed: “the Indian got what was owing to him.”

But as Conservative MP and future prime minister R.B. Bennett thundered during a 1915 debate on the Liberals’ management of the Interior and Indian Affairs departments, it was “the poor Indians” who were “the victims” in this dispossession story. The loss of reserve land – and how it was brought about – should “bring the blush of shame to the face of any Canadian.” He was right – and this history is worth remembering.