Ottawa apology for colony scheme a step toward mending divide in Peepeekisis Cree Nation

·4 min read
Marc Miller, federal minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, apologized to Peepeekisis Cree Nation on behalf of Canada on Wednesday, but members of the nation say there needs to be action alongside it. (Gary Solilak/CBC - image credit)
Marc Miller, federal minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, apologized to Peepeekisis Cree Nation on behalf of Canada on Wednesday, but members of the nation say there needs to be action alongside it. (Gary Solilak/CBC - image credit)

Decades after the File Hills Colony Scheme separated the Peepeekisis Cree Nation into "originals" and "placements," members of the community say a federal government apology could be a step toward mending divisions.

This week, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller apologized to the nation on behalf of the Canadian government for implementing the colony that 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 it to Indigenous "graduates" cherry-picked by leaders from Saskatchewan and Manitoba residential and industrial schools. Those residents are often referred to as "placements."

By 1906, only 29 per cent of the original 26,600 acres of land remained for the nation's original inhabitants. Peepeekisis Cree Nation is located about 100 kilometres northeast of Regina.

It intentionally 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 was always seen as two reserves on one," said Cheyanne Desnomie, a Peepeekisis member and a researcher at the University of Regina.

"You had people who were brought in, and under the direction of the Indian agent they were told not to communicate with original members that were there because it was thought that if they did they might regress and ... undo anything that was 'learned' or 'gained' in the residential school period."

Dayne Patterson/CBC
Dayne Patterson/CBC

Desnomie said the community has an "identity crisis" because while it's called a "Cree Nation," many people were brought into the community from outside and might have other backgrounds, like Lakota or Métis.

Desnomie said this apology could be a step in healing the divide 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 whether to consider himself as a placement since his grandfather was sent there as a Cree and Saulteaux interpreter, only later taking farmland.

"Often it's been kind of inferred that the placements did this to the originals. Well, that wasn't the case; it was the federal government with their experiment that imposed this on the total population," he said.

He felt the government apology was vague, but at least it puts the conversation back on the table.

Gary Solilak/CBC
Gary Solilak/CBC

Brass isn't the only one unsure about his roots.

"Unfortunately, I'm not 100 per cent positive on where my family originates from," Sara Poitras, an elementary school teacher with family roots in Peepeekisis, said earlier this week when Miller offered his apology.

"I think there are many 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 division in the nation, describing it "like original members versus 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 history of the colony depends on who's telling it, Desnomie said. Some oral history says the colony started around 1898, whereas some written history marks the beginning of the colony closer to 1906. The end of the colony has the same historical uncertainty, Desnomie said, but it seems to have fallen apart sometime around the 1950s.

LISTEN | Cheyanne Desnomie describes the history of the File Hills Colony and the importance of the apology:

William Morris Graham, an Indian agent, was the architect of what appears to be the only social experiment of its kind — though an unethical one.

Documents from the Indian Claims Commission described it as a way "to further the education of Indians and their assimilation into the non-Indian way of life.

"Indian Agent Graham strictly controlled the everyday lives of Peepeekisis band members."

Desnomie described it as the colonizer's attempt at creating an "agrarian utopian population."

She's been researching the colony scheme for about a decade, but even then she's unsure of what would remedy the lasting damage caused by about a half-century of the colony's operations and another 35 years of legal battles.

A long-awaited apology

In August 2021, the federal government announced it had concluded negotiations with the nation, leading to a $150-million payout and the option to buy 18,720 acres of land to be added to the reserve.

"Apologies don't mean anything unless there's action behind it," said Desnomie.

Freda Koochikum worked on the File Hills Colony Claim, which was first submitted in 1986 and later found Canada breached its lawful obligations to the band.

She agreed that "when an apology is made there's always something that has to be done, something more that has to come of it."

Desnomie said one step forward would be providing the nation land without having to pay for it.

Colin Stonechild, a Peepeekisis Headman, said during a news conference on Wednesday the nation would be pursuing adding land to the reserve.

Poitras said she doesn't know "what needs to happen, but it just doesn't feel done or settled to me."

"We can't ever get back what we lost."

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