Reconciliation work, made necessary by the fallout from the 1885 North-West Resistance, is not over.
By: Angus Esperance and Bill Waiser.
Saskatchewan’s Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation and the Crown are actively engaged in reconciliation.
Willow Cree Chiefs Beardy and Saswaypew (succeeded by Okemasis) signed an adhesion to Treaty 6 in August 1876. Alarmed by the disappearance of the bison, they accepted the Queen’s offer of assistance to make the transition to farming.
The Beardy’s & Okemasis people settled near Duck Lake, just west of the South Saskatchewan River. The first few years of reserve life were marked by hardship and privation. Promised agricultural assistance was not only late in arriving, but often inadequate.
Then, in the spring of 1885, the Willow Cree people were helplessly drawn into the vortex of the North-West Resistance. The Willow Cree leaders counselled their followers to remain on the sidelines during the Metis resistance. But some band members were forcibly coerced into joining Metis ranks — a fact willfully ignored by government officials. The historical record suggests they were not allies.
Canada moved quickly to punish First Nations for their alleged involvement in the resistance. Then-prime minister John A. Macdonald told Gov.-Gen. Lansdowne, “We have certainly made (the resistance) assume large proportions in the public eye. This has been done … for our own purposes.”
Those bands found off-reserve were accused of violating Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney’s early May 1885 order that Indians remain peacefully in place. It did not matter that the Beardy’s & Okemasis people, like the white settler community, had feared for their safety and fled from their homes because the Battle of Duck Lake took place on the edge of their reserve.
They were now considered a “rebel” band.
Canada suspended annuity payments to the Beardy’s & Okemasis people for four years — from 1885-1888 inclusive — even though this unilateral action violated the Treaty 6 agreement. General Frederick Middleton, the commander of the North-West Field Force, also confiscated the treaty medals of Beardy and Okemasis and deposed them as chiefs of their bands.
The Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation have lived with the shame of being “disloyal” for 130 years.
Finally, in 2015, the Specific Claims Tribunal ruled that the Crown had wrongly accused the Beardy’s & Okemasis bands of insurrection and breached its treaty obligation to pay annuities to band members at a time of suffering and starvation. Canada was required to pay $4.6 million to the Beardy’s & Okemasis people in compensation. The tribunal decision also applied to 12 other bands who had their treaty payments withheld.
Another step on the road to reconciliation was taken this past August. Mary Culbertson, the Treaty Commissioner of Saskatchewan and a member of the Keeseekoose First Nation, arranged to have two replacement treaty medals presented to the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation. The event, purposely held on Aug.28, marked the 144th anniversary of the Willow Cree’s entry into treaty. It was also significant that His Honour Russ Mirasty, the lieutenant-governor of Saskatchewan and a member of the Lac La Ronge First Nation, participated in the ceremony.
That’s the good news.
But the reconciliation work, made necessary by the fallout from the 1885 North-West Resistance, is far from over.
Three Cree chiefs Poundmaker, Big Bear, and One Arrow were found guilty of treason-felony in the aftermath of the resistance and sentenced to time in Stony Mountain penitentiary. In May 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pardoned Poundmaker. That same consideration should also apply to Big Bear and One Arrow who were reluctant participants in the troubles and convicted for what Prime Minister Macdonald called, “our own purposes.”
General Middleton also took One Arrow’s treaty medal after the fall of Batoche. No one knows what became of the medal, but a replacement should be presented to the One Arrow band.
Canada also refused to recognize the chief and headmen of the Beardy & Okemasis First Nation from 1889 until 1936. Twenty-seven other bands were similarly treated. Canada must make amends for this heavy-handed action.
Perhaps the most painful consequence of the resistance was Canada’s declaration that 28 Indigenous bands had been disloyal in 1885. This “rebel” label was arbitrarily applied in many instances.
Until these outstanding issues are resolved and Canada formally apologizes for its actions, reconciliation remains a work in progress.
Angus Esperance is an Elder with the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation.
This article originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.