Indian band seeks $4M for missed $5 payments in 1880s

Members of a Saskatchewan First Nation are seeking $4 million from the federal government to make up for missed annual payments of $5 per band member dating to 1885.

The claim, by the Beardy's and Okemasis First Nation north of Saskatoon, relates to promises made in Treaty 6, an historic agreement between several Indian bands and the federal government in 1876.

Members of what would come to be known as the Beardy's and Okemasis First Nation signed onto the treaty which included a promise by the Crown to pay a yearly annuity of $5 to each band member.

However, those payments were withheld from 1885 to 1888 because the band was accused of taking part in the Riel Rebellion.

Losing that kind of money, in that day and age, was significant current band members say.

"The $5 payment was withheld. They had nothing to live on," Angus Esperance, a band elder, told CBC News. "The Indian people were starving. They were dying."

Esperance added that band members of the day were not involved in the fighting between forces loyal to Louis Riel and Canada.

"Chief Beardy had nothing to do with it," he said. "[Withholding the treaty annuity] was kind of a punishment for the people that participated. But then the other ones that didn't participate suffered along."

According to the band's formal notice of claim, "Chief Beardy pleaded with his members to remain neutral" in the dispute.

Also known as the Northwest Rebellion, fighting broke out when the Métis declared a provisional government at Batoche, which is very near to the reserve.

"Although the 1885 Rebellion started near Beardy's reserve by sheer coincident, Chiefs Beardy and Okemasis were stripped of their treaty medals and the bands were listed as 'disloyal' by the Department of Indian Affairs," the claim notes.

The case is currently going through a process created to address specific claims relating to treaties. Federal government lawyers are fighting the claim.

According to the claim, about 200 to 240 Beardys and Okemasis band members lost out on their $5 annuities for a four-year stretch before payments resumed in 1889.

At the time, the population of the two bands was around 250.

Ron Maurice, a Calgary-based lawyer for the band, said the band is seeking $4 million to account for the withheld annuities payments, with interest.

"All told, it was about $4,000 that was withheld from the band at that time," Maurice told CBC News in an interview Thursday. "It represents, today, actually a relatively modest sum. It's about $4 million."

Today, there are about 3,000 members of the now-single band. About 40 per cent of them live on the reserve.

The Beardy's and Okemasis action could set a precedent for 14 other bands that also saw their ancestors lose out on their $5 annuities.

The process, known as specific claims, can take several years before a matter is resolved.