The Peepeekisis Cree Nation won a land settlement claim earlier this month against the federal government dating back to 1898 involving Indian agent William Graham, known for forcing non-members to settle on the reserve and assimilate with the community's original Treaty 4 signees over a proposed farm colony.
It’s a legal process 34 years in the making, after former Peepeekisis Chief Enock Poitras first filed papers for the case in 1986.
The First Nation, a little more than an hour’s drive northeast of Regina, now has to take the $150-million settlement to its members for a vote, planned for Dec. 11, to accept or reject it.
“It was such a long and outstanding case. We worked very hard. We got rejected so many times, it was like we (expected to get) rejected again,” headman and acting Chief Bill Desnomie said.
A federal court twice denied the land claim, both times because it was outside its statute of limitations, Desnomie said.
Peepeekisis re-submitted the case in 2017, doubting anything new would come of it. Desnomie said community members were demanding details by then.
When the First Nation won the case and Ottawa sent a settlement offer letter on Nov. 6, it brought a wave of “relief” for everyone working on it, he said.
“It was almost a boiling point where we were facing a ton of pressure, because we were under an oath of confidentiality. There was a lot of pressure on us from the community: ‘Where are we?’ (over) the internal mechanisms involved with the negotiations.
“We couldn’t reveal any of the back-and-forth.”
In their 2017 submissions, Peepeekisis leaders focused on 18,840 acres of land from which the Indian agent Graham made the File Hills Colony in 1898 on the community’s current reserve land.
An Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan entry says Graham’s plan forced non-Peepeekisis males to move into the community and start farming. The men were graduates of industrial schools in the area.
“Original Peepeekisis Band members were displaced from their homes and deprived of the use of their communal lands,” the entry states.
Desnomie’s family lineage has roots in both sides, what he called “originals” and “placements.” His dad’s family is descendants of original Peepeekisis members who signed Treaty 4 in 1874, while his mom’s family is connected to the newer placement members.
Desnomie referenced Graham’s other work in 1902 and 1906.
“(Graham’s people) pushed us to the west side ... They took some of the land from everybody that was there originally. Then they placed these different groups of people on the First Nation,” 50 families in all, he said.
A remnant is some Peepeekisis lots are still 80 acres in size.
“What we argued ... is when (Canada) brought these families on and they did the subsections on the First Nation, they started giving the 80-acre lots. They should have given more land and the resources that came with these lands,” Desnomie said.
The $150 million represents potential lost value and revenue, had Graham and the government expanded the community’s lands for it’s “colony scheme,” the acting chief said.
The First Nation has mailed vote packages to its 2,000-plus eligible members living elsewhere for the ratification process.
It's to hold an in-person vote day for on-reserve members Dec. 11.
For the money to be approved, at least 25 per cent of the band’s members have to vote, with 51 per cent voting to receive it.
If that happens, each member is to get a $15,000 payout. After the band covers legal fees, it will move the remaining $70 million into a community trust.
Evan Radford, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Regina Leader-Post, The Leader-Post