Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: September 2016

New Northwest

Demand for Sask homesteads to be met in ‘The New North-West’

Frank Oliver, the Liberal MP for Edmonton, had scarcely assumed his new duties in April 1905 as federal minister of the Interior in the Wilfrid Laurier cabinet when he received a troubling report from one of his department officials.

For the past few years, Robert Young, in his capacity as superintendent of railway lands, had been monitoring the rate at which homesteads were being taken up in Western Canada and concluded that the current rate of immigration would soon exhaust the available lands. It was a startling finding, especially when it had always been assumed that Canada had enough land for countless millions in North-West. In fact, the challenge in the 1870s and 1880s had been getting people to settle in Western Canada when there was still homestead land available in the United States.

That changed by the early 1900s when hundreds of thousands of immigrants answered the siren call of “the last best west” and the promise of 160 acres of free land.

More settlers applied for homesteads in Western Canada in the first decade of the 20th century than during the entire previous century. Saskatchewan led the way with 19,787 entries in 1905 and 27,692 the following year. By the end of the decade, three out of every five homestead entries in the three Prairie provinces were in Saskatchewan

The Department of Interior responded to this demand for land by opening up the southwest part of the province to homesteading, even though the dry mixed-prairie district was best suited to grazing. Oliver, wearing his other hat as minister of Indian Affairs, also pursued the reduction or outright elimination of Indian reserves on the grounds that bands had “idle” or “unused” lands that could be given to immigrant settlers.

Even then, the Department of Interior remained worried that the supply of homestead land might soon be gone and that prospective settlers would go elsewhere.

The Interior Department consequently began to investigate the idea of starting a second settlement frontier north of the North Saskatchewan River — what became known as “the New North-West.”  It was not a far-fetched idea. Saskatchewan’s northern boundary had been set at the 60th parallel in the belief that it was the northern limit of agriculture.

In the summer of 1908, Frank Crean, a civil engineer by training and clerk with the Interior Department, was handed the task of examining a huge sweep of forested land south of the Churchill River between Stanley Mission on the east and Ile-a-la-Crosse on the west, including present-day Prince Albert National Park.

Although the local indigenous population depended on this territory for its subsistence activities, Crean determined that the land was ideal for raising cereal crops. Chancing upon a fine garden on Red Deer (Waskesiu) Lake, for example, Crean enthused: “I fancy this country might profitably be surveyed and opened for settlement.” In the end, he reported that almost one-quarter of the survey region of five million acres was ready for cultivation.

He reached an even more favourable conclusion the following summer when he continued his investigation westward from Portage la Loche into northeastern Alberta. Once again, he found small garden plots and promising patches of wheat and oats, a fact confirmed by the splendid photographs he took at northern settlements including one picture where the crop reached his shoulders.

Crean’s findings nicely dovetailed with the needs of the moment. But when two surveyors were sent into the region in 1909 — 10 to lay out the major base lines, including the third meridian, in preparation for homesteading — they found little land of agricultural value.

Faced with these contradictory findings, the Interior Department asked C.H. Morse of the University of Toronto School of Forestry to do another reconnaissance survey of the region in 1912.  Morse strongly recommended that the land east of the Sturgeon River — generally rolling, heavily timbered, with sandy or gravelly soils — be set aside as a federal forest reserve.

That it was the right decision was confirmed by a 1914 soil survey of the new reserve. “It would be very unfortunate,” the report’s author concluded, “if this area were opened to settlement, as nothing but hardship and poverty followed by starvation awaits.”

As for Frank Crean, his name was given to the largest lake in Prince Albert National Park.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Cover detail from Bill Waiser’s book on the 1908 and 1909 Frank Crean Expeditions to the New North-West (Fifth House Publishers)

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Bill Waiser’s latest book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, is now available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.

George Willoughby White Cap Reserve Sioux

TLE important step on road to reconciliation

There could have been no better setting for the landmark agreement.

On Sept. 22, 1992, a perfect fall day in Saskatoon, 700 invited guests and dignitaries gathered at Wanuskewin Heritage Park just north of the city to witness the most important land deal in provincial history — and an important step on the road to reconciliation.

For several millennia, early peoples had been coming to this traditional gathering place along the South Saskatchewan River, where they sought shelter from winter’s biting winds in the deep coulees and drove bison over the steep cliffs to be butchered below. Their descendants had now returned to sign a Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE) agreement between the federal and provincial governments and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN).

“These agreements represent Canadians saying yes to you,” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney remarked at the outdoor ceremony.  “And they are a way for Aboriginals to say yes to Canada.”

An immensely pleased FSIN Chief Roland Crowe responded that the settlements “(are) going to make a different life for all of us.”

Getting to Wanuskewin that September had been a protracted journey for Saskatchewan’s First Nations.

At the time of treaty in the 1870s, Indian bands were entitled to reserves based on the formula of 128 acres of land per person.

But some bands never received their full allotment, or in a few cases, never secured a reserve at all. Others had been stripped of land through forced or fraudulent surrenders during the settlement boom in the early 20th century.

The matter was further complicated when Saskatchewan secured control over its public lands and resources in 1930. Under the terms of the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement, the federal government was still primarily responsible for settling claims, but unoccupied provincial land could now be used to cover shortfalls.

Little was done until the early 1970s, when the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians (as it was then known) began pushing treaty rights in response to the failed federal government initiative (the 1969 White Paper) on Indian policy. During the 1973 provincial visit of Queen Elizabeth, for example, First Nations leaders raised — unexpectedly — the matter of broken treaty promises.

The Allan Blakeney NDP government responded by reaching a tentative agreement with federal claims negotiators and the FSI in 1976 — coincidentally, the hundred anniversary of the signing of Treaty 6. Known as the Saskatchewan formula, it proposed that entitlements be based on the band population as of Dec. 31, 1976 and not at the time the treaty was signed.

The agreement, however, quickly became bogged down in bickering between Regina and Ottawa over land and money, prompting a few bands to pursue their claims through the courts.

This claim-by-claim litigation was expensive, lengthy, and divisive. The Mulroney government and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations consequently pursued a comprehensive agreement by establishing the Office of the Treaty Commissioner in 1989.

Former Saskatoon Mayor Cliff Wright was handed the delicate job of settling the claims of more than two dozen bands and devised a new compensation formula that formed the basis of three-way negotiations between the FSIN and the Canadian and Saskatchewan governments.

Twenty-five bands were to be given $455 million to buy land of their own choosing (approximately 1.57 million acres) in rural or urban areas, including privately-held property, on a willing-buyer/willing-seller basis.
The TLE Agreement met with resistance, if not resentment, in Saskatchewan.

Some expressed alarm about the potential loss of tax revenue on band-owned property. Others did not want Indians living next to them or taking over local businesses. There was also a strong belief that Indians were asking for more than originally agreed to in the treaties — TLE was just another “hand-out” — and that the province should not be obliged to pay for past wrongs.

But TLE offered the prospect of First Nations bands playing a more direct, meaningful role in the province — to the benefit of themselves and society at large — by providing them with an array of potential economic opportunities.

Nor was much land involved. Reserves made up only 1.5 per cent of the province’s total area at the time, and it was estimated that TLE might double the First Nations land base.

More than anything else, though, TLE was in keeping with the solemn treaty pledges of more than a century earlier — agreements made on behalf of the Crown and by extension, the Canadian state and the Canadian people.

Since then, the Office of the Treaty Commissioner has worked tirelessly to remind Saskatchewan citizens that “we are all treaty people.”

Premier Roy Romanow said much the same thing at Wanuskewin in 1992 when he observed that Saskatchewan had to embrace its Aboriginal people or the province’s future would be compromised, if not lost.

“We’re acknowledging our shared destiny,” he told the gathering.

Those words, “our shared destiny,” cannot be uttered enough these days.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:The family of Saskatoon storekeeper George Willoughby share a lighthearted moment with some Sioux men from the nearby Whitecap reserve at Moose Woods.

Photo Source: University of Saskatchewan Archives and Special Collections

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser’s latest book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, is now available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.