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