'No reason to put up fences:' Indigenous land-users, farmers roll out land sharing network

·3 min read

More than a century of meaning is written on a sign welcoming Indigenous land-users onto Mary Culbertson's property near the Rural Municipality of Livingston.

Culbertson, the Treaty Commissioner of Saskatchewan, is one of roughly 20 early adopters of the Treaty Land Sharing Network. The network, ranging from Cochin to south of Moose Jaw, is a group of farmers and ranchers placing signs on their properties notifying traditional land users they can gather medicine and plants, hunt and hold ceremonies there.

Culbertson, a member of Keeseekoose First Nation, said she hopes the signs bring the province a step closer to the intent of the Treaties.

"The Treaties were to be for everybody and to be communal, not for individual prosperity. Yet we drive by farms that are right beside our reserves and people are millionaires, and we're living in poverty right beside them," she said.

The sharing network has its roots in the murder trial of Gerald Stanley, said Mary Smillie, a member of the group's steering committee who held the network unveiling on her family's farm near Bladworth on Thursday.

Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old from Red Pheasant First Nation, was killed by Stanley on his farm in northwestern Saskatchewan in 2016. A jury acquitted Stanley of second-degree murder after he testified that he shot Boushie by accident.

The province was a "tinderbox" after the trial, particularly in rural areas where there was a push for more stringent trespassing laws, Smillie said.

A group of seven women decided to suggest another way forward and started creating the network, she said.

By aiming to uphold the treaties, land can be shared between users, "and once you realize that, they (have) no reason to put up fences," she said.

Bradley Desjarlais of Fishing Lake First Nation said it's common for game wardens to stop him on the land. Despite those difficulties, he's raised four kids on moose, elk and deer.

He's proud of that history, but the signs come as a relief, he said.

"I'm going to practise my rights."

Sheena Koops, whose family owns lands near Estevan, picked up a sign for their property. She said her family is happy to share with traditional land users, and hopes its sparks broader conversations.

"I think settler people are starting to wake up to reality that as we're benefiting from the Treaties, Indigenous people were being oppressed. The treaty has been broken by our people," she said.

Culbertson said she hopes the land network will be part of a change, but there should be no illusions about racism in the province and the responsibility to undo it.

She recalled an experience in 2014, when she was an articling law student in North Battleford and participating in a reconciliation workshop. At the time, a project of hers about Indigenous self-determination was selected to go on a billboard, but it was defaced when someone spray-painted "KKK" over it.

"When you say, 'We're from Saskatchewan,' sure, we have that pride. But it's also like the Alabama and Mississippi of the North," Culbertson said.

"How long are we going to keep living like this?"

Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix

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