During the negotiations of Treaty 8, many First Nations people in the Lesser Slave Lake and Peace River districts insisted that they did not want to live on reserves where they feared the government could hem them in. Yet, such apprehensions created few concerns for government officials. As the Treaty Commissioners noted in their report in 1899, Native reluctance to take up reserves together with the vastness of the country allowed “quite time enough” to lay out reserves “as advancing settlement” required. And, in fact, Indians continued to pursue a highly mixed economy in which hunting and trapping were sometimes combined with trade or with work for fur trade companies, the missionaries, or on the river boats.
Within a short time of the treaty signing, however, a few more white settlers had begun to appear in some districts, and forecasts were common that many more would be arriving soon. This prospect created alarm among some First Nations people who recognized it as a threat to their way of life. Natives reacted to these real and potential developments in several ways. Some moved to areas where white settlement was unlikely.(1) Others demanded the assignment of reserves, which, despite earlier apprehensions, now were viewed as a means of protecting their interests. Such reserves would provide a home base, and the natural resources of the reserve (along with ongoing off-reserve labour and commercial activities) would help people make ends meet.
While Indian Affairs was sympathetic to such concerns in some cases, its overall priority lay in accommodating white settlement. One source of conflict between Indians and incoming white settlers over land could be avoided by assigning reserves which would free all other land in an area for homesteading. This was the situation near Peace River, around Lesser Slave Lake, at Wabasca and at Fort McMurray.(2) In other districts, where settlement was not believed to be imminent, the government stalled or refused to lay out reserves. This, for example, was the case at Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan. And in future years, white interests clearly continued to shape reserve policies. Before 1939, the government was reluctant to assign reserves in areas where no white interests were involved–such as in the case of the Cree at Lubicon Lake–or where the creation of reserves conflicted with white interests–such as at Fort Smith where reserves were seen as a threat to Canada’s wood bison protection policies.(3)
The priority of Euro-Canadian needs was also evident in the government’s subsequent efforts to sell reserve land to Euro-Canadians. In practice, the federal government did not treat reserves as the permanent assignment of lands as had been suggested at the time of treaty negotiations. Typically, Indian Affairs facilitated the sale of reserve lands that were coveted by Euro-Canadian settlers and the Indians were moved to other reserves or into areas that were not of interest to white settlers. As historian Sarah Carter demonstrated, this had been the pattern on the prairies since the nineteenth century. Although there was some debate in the Indian Affairs department, sales were usually justified by “whatever arguments were expedient, no matter how contradictory.” As elsewhere on the prairies, an appeal to “progress” was often used to justify the sale of reserve land in the Peace River country. In this view, unfarmed arable land was said to be “idle” while farming, in contrast, was seen as a “proper and beneficial” use of the land.(4)
Sale of reserve land was allowed by the Indian Act which required the agreement of the Indians concerned and their compensation with cash or other land. This legislation was periodically amended to make sales easier. By the 1920s, sales required only the consent of a majority of male band members over 21 years of age–often a small percentage of a band’s total population. In northern Alberta during the interwar years (when many reserves in the Peace country were sold), sales terms usually included an immediate cash payment, annual interest payments and promises of farm equipment or livestock, even though the latter had already been promised by the treaty but rarely delivered. Purchasers usually paid 10 percent down and paid off the balance through annual payments. Paid to Indian Affairs, these funds (less an administration fee) were deposited in the band’s account from which the Indians were paid an annual “interest” payment. While Indian Affairs tried to collect from purchasers who did not make their payments, the consequences of not doing so were ultimately felt by the Indians who did not receive payments from the band fund if there were insufficient funds in the account. This arrangement reflected the status of Indians as wards of the state, and demonstrated another dimension of their relationship with the Euro-Canadian dominant culture.(5)
While many reserves were sold under this paternalistic system, some Indians were successful in keeping their reserves. This was the case at the Swan River reserve, which the government repeatedly tried to sell over a 15 year period. One of four reserves on the south shore of Lesser Slave Lake, it had a population of 66 by 1923 and contained about 11,500 acres. While some of the land was suitable for farming, none had been cleared or broken. The reserve also had excellent hay lands along the lake. Although the Indians owned a few cattle and horses, they made a living by trapping and hunting, selling hay and firewood, and through occasional wage labour for local farmers, businesses and the railway. When the railway crossed the Swan River reserve, a station was built on land purchased from the band. The village of Kinuso (at first called Swan River) subsequently grew up there, surrounded by the reserve. Like other recently established prairie towns, its future depended on increased white settlement.(6)
In early 1923, a group of villagers petitioned the federal government demanding that the reserve be thrown open for settlement because it contained “a large proportion of land now laying idle, which is detrimental to the village and settlement.” The local MP, Donald Kennedy, and the provincial MLA, J.S. Cote, supported the petition. While senior Indian Affairs officials endorsed the sale of the reserve and the transfer of its residents to the nearby reserve at Driftpile, Harold Laird, the Indian agent, disagreed. The Indians at Swan River were making a satisfactory living, and although he agreed that some land at the edge of the reserve could be sold, he suggested that the Indians keep control of the hay lands and lease rather than sell land nearest the village. Ignoring this advice, the Indian Commissioner in Regina recommended that the land be sold.(7)
In the interim, the band’s chief, Astatchikum (who was also known as Felix Willier) wrote to Indian Affairs opposing the sale. He reported that “some white people” had been secretly circulating a petition among the residents of the reserve demanding the sale of the reserve. Neither he nor his headmen had been approached by the petitioners, who, he stated, had gone instead “to the weak-minded” to obtain sufficient signatures to impress Indian Affairs. But Willier was “absolutely against the cession of any of our Reserve” even “for all the gold in the world.” He believed that the land was essential for the future. Although fishing and hunting had sustained the people so far, “the young ones” would have to begin farming since other opportunities were declining. Moreover, Indians from Swan River could not be moved to Driftpile because land there was already limited and if more people moved in, each would only “be left room enough to have a dozen bushels of potatoes a year.” Moreover, “and I am sorry to say so, the worst of all is that the money we shall get from the land if sold will turn back to those heartless people who covet it and who will draw the price of it from the Indians, by the sale of intoxicating liquors and the use of night gambling.” He noted that the Indian Agent, Harold Laird, had approved and encouraged the writing of his letter, and, signing in syllabic and English, Willier concluded, “I trust your love of justice to prevent such an infamy.”(8)
Infamy or not, Ottawa drew up the documents for the surrender of a portion of the Swan River reserve and Laird was instructed to call a meeting at which the sales documents could be presented for approval. But the vote could not be taken since all the young men were away hunting. This happened again in 1924. Laird informed the Commissioner that he would try and get the Indians together the next year, but once again the meeting was not called, and the Commissioner instructed Laird “to make a serious attempt to get the Indians together and secure the surrender.”(9) But in 1926 and 1927 a quorum of eligible reserve residents again could not be found, and the Indian Commissioner urged “that a special effort” be made on the matter. He recommended that the annuity payments not be made the next year until after discussions about the surrender since “the Indians apparently have little interest in attending meetings once they get their money.”(10)
Throughout this manoeuvring, villagers in Kinuso continued to agitate for the sale of the reserve. In 1927 Premier Brownlee added his support, and L.A. Giroux, now the local MLA, also urged the Minister of the Interior to support the “opening” of the Swan River reserve, as well as the Sawridge and Sucker Creek reserves. Giroux contended that all the Indians should be consolidated at Driftpile since their reserves were “retarding the settlement” of the area and “hampering communications” among white settlers along the south shore of the lake. In a significant choice of words, he recommended that the Driftpile reserve should “at the present time not be interfered with” because it had a school and no nearby white settlers. Eventually, however, he hoped that all the Indians would be removed from the south shore and “transferred on [sic] the [north] side of the lake behind the Grouard settlement.”(11)
This pressure from prominent Alberta provincial politicians seemed to reinvigorate Indian Affairs. While it had earlier tried to have only a portion of the reserve sold, in 1928 it decided to sell the whole of the Swan River reserve and move the people to Driftpile. The department noted that if the land “was sold to settlers,” the sale would be “of considerable importance to the Municipality.” Similar plans were also hatched for the Sawridge reserve which lay to the east of Swan River, but when Agent Laird reported that it was “not at all suitable for agricultural purposes,” Ottawa’s eagerness to sell it disappeared. The sale of the Swan River reserve nonetheless remained a priority for the department, but it was deftly thwarted by the Indians. They continued to be absent at crucial times, all the while avoiding confrontation by stating that they now wanted better terms for the sale of the reserve, thus giving the appearance that they were not opposed to its eventual sale. At this point, however, a meeting could not be held to discuss the sale because Agent Laird was now absent. Apparently believing that he was either incompetent or in league with the Indians, the Indian Commissioner recommended that an Inspector be sent “to take the surrender as I am doubtful of Mr. Laird’s ability to further the interests of the Department in discussing terms with the Indians.” The Indian Affairs department also considered securing the surrender of the reserve through various administrative devices, but it was reluctant to take this route since such tactics would not conform “in all respects to the provisions” of the Indian Act and would have to be approved by Order in Council.(12)
In late 1928, Inspector Murison travelled from Regina to Northern Alberta to negotiate surrender of the Swan River reserve along with others in the Peace country. Failing to draw a quorum at Swan River, he gave notice that he would hold another meeting in two weeks. At the first meeting, the Indians had opposed the sale of the whole reserve but appeared willing to surrender a part of it around the village. When Inspector Murison returned, however, a quorum of eligible voters had gathered, but to his surprise they “all voted against releasing any portion of their reserve.” Presuming that they were incapable of setting their own priorities, Murison explained their position by endorsing a theory popular in Kinuso–the Indians had been “influenced” by “outsiders” against the sale. While these outsiders were not identified, Murison’s support for the sale of the reserve had intensified. The Indians were not using the land appropriately, he wrote, because they were not farming. Further, he now contended that the reserve should be sold because it would help the department exercise greater control over the Indians. Although the Indian Agent had reported the year before that “excessive drinking, so far as he knew,” was “not prevalent on the Reserves,” Murison asserted that this was indeed the case and that tighter control of people’s lives could be had by moving all of them onto a single reserve.(13)
Despite such recommendations, Murison’s failure to secure approval for the sale of the reserve led the Indian Commissioner to finally conclude that “it might be just as well to let this matter stand for a time and the Indians may come around later on.” Although the Kinuso Chamber of Commerce again asked in 1929 that a portion of the reserve be sold to the village for use as a fair ground, the Indians’ “emphatic refusal” confirmed the department’s conclusion that the matter should rest.(14) Even so, the Kinuso Chamber of Commerce and MLA Giroux continued in the early 1930s to press Ottawa (usually through Charles Stewart, the Minister of the Interior and the former Premier of Alberta) to obtain surrender of the reserve. While Indian Affairs noted that it might consider the proposal later, it now refused to facilitate the sale because agricultural conditions in western Canada were poor and sale of the land to farmers was unlikely.(15) The last effort in this struggle came in 1938. The Village once again wanted to purchase land that it was renting from the band for a sports ground. While Indian Affairs observed that this land near to the town was worth more than any other on the reserve, it agreed to raise the matter with the band. But Chief Sowan was adamant: the band would not sell its land. His reasoning disclosed the Indians’ priorities and their social needs–this reserve met their requirements and helped mediate their relationship with the surrounding society. Sowan noted that people camped at the fair grounds when visiting the reserve, as did members of the band at some times of the year. Further, “if we sell the land outright, the white people may charge us admission fees to their sports. They tried this once, and we told them the land was ours. We do not object to them having sports on this land. We enjoy going to sports ourselves.” Lastly, he noted that “if we sell outright, liquor may be brought there on sports days, [but] as it is the police watch this very closely.”(16)
This was, for all intents and purposes, the last of any attempts by the federal government to sell the reserve. But efforts to sell the Swan River reserve over this 15 year period illustrate a number of elements in the history of the relationship between First Nations people and the Euro-Canadian dominant society. The attitude that land that was not farmed was wasted and was, in effect, vacant, expressed a long held European attitude towards the land rights of indigenous peoples.(17) At Swan River, such notions directly served immediate local Euro-Canadian economic interests. Nonetheless, the band was successful against a powerful system and influential lobbyists. Indeed, the involvement of powerful political figures in this debate indicates how Indian reserves were not minor inconveniences but offered significant opportunities for white settlers. At one point or another, MPs, MLAs, Alberta’s Premier, the Minister of the Interior, the local Chamber of Commerce and other public figures and private interests had taken the time and effort to lobby for sale of the reserve. Their failure was entirely due to the resistance by the residents of the reserve, and, to some extent, to the efforts of an Indian Agent who was, for a time and for whatever reason, at odds with his department’s policy.
Resistance to the sale of the Swan River reserve was only one example of the broader response by Aboriginal people to the many challenges that they faced during a period of expansion of Euro-Canadian society. It is, of course, true that Indian Affairs and Euro-Canadian settlers in the Peace River country were successful during the 1920s in having many reserves sold and the Indians transferred to other locations. But the relationship among Euro-Canadians, Indian Affairs and Aboriginal peoples throughout northern Alberta during the interwar years was complex. At the same time that reserve sales were being proposed (and often effected), people who had not yet been assigned reserves under Treaty 8 were demanding that the government grant them reserves. In yet other cases, people who had not been admitted to treaty petitioned for admission. And in the case of the Metis, their political organisation and lobbying led to the creation of the Ewing royal commission and the establishment in the late 1930s of a Metis home base and land system in the form of the Metis settlements. As at Swan River, these examples reveal that while Aboriginal people in northern Alberta were often confronted by a hostile system, they were not always passive in the face of the challenges of the new north after 1899.
1Zaslow, Morris. The Northward Expansion of Canada 1914-1967. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988), 151; Patricia McCormack, “How The (North) West Was Won: Development and Underdevelopment in the Fort Chipewyan Region.” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Alberta, 1984), 108-11, 233.
3Harkin to Scott, January 28, 1920, Bury to Scott, February 5, 1920, and Bury to McLean, July 5, 1920, RG10, Reel 9482, vol. 7997, file 191/30-11-1, NAC; Rene Fumoleau, As Long As This Land Shall Last (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, n.d. ), 119, 122. On the Lubicon, see: for example, Darlene A. Fereira, “Need Not Greed: The Lubicon Lake Cree Band Land Claim in Historical Perspective” (M.A. thesis, University of Alberta, 1990), 72-73; Thomas Flanagan, “Some Factors Bearing on the Origins of the Lubicon Lake Dispute,” Alberta 2 (1990): 47-62.
4Sarah Carter, Lost Harvests. Prairie Indian Reserve Farms and Government Policy (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), 244-46, 250, 252.
5Carter, Lost Harvests, 244-45; Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada’s First Nations. A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992), 323-26.
6Graham to Scott, April 3, 1923, RG10, Reel C-14813, vol. 7544, file 29,131-5 Pt. 1, NAC; Annual Report, Department of the Interior (Dominion Lands Agent’s Report, Grouard) for 1916, 24.
7Deputy Superintendent General to Graham, March 13, 1923 and Graham to Scott, April 3, 1923, RG10, Reel C-14813, vol. 7544, file 29,131-5 Pt. 1, NAC. Harold Laird was the son of David Laird, former Lieutenant Governor of the NWT and one of the commissioners of Treaty 8.
8Astatchikun (Willier) to Scott, (received April 30, 1923), RG10, Reel C-14813, vol. 7544, file 29,131-5 Pt. 1, NAC.
9Graham to Scott, June 1, 1923 and Graham to Secretary, May 26, 1926, RG10, Reel C-14813, vol. 7544, file 29,131-5 Pt. 1, NAC.
10Graham to Scott, December 10, 1927, RG10, Reel C-14813, vol. 7544, file 29,131-5 Pt. 1, NAC. This tactic was likely illegal under the terms for surrenders set out in the Indian Act (Neil Reddekopp, The Creation and Surrender of the Beaver and Duncans’ Bands Reserves. Edmonton: Indian Land Claims, Alberta Aboriginal Affairs, Paper No. 2, 1996), 75.
11Giroux to Stewart, January 5, 1928 (copy), and Deputy Superintendent General to Superintendent General, December 29, 1927, RG10, Reel C-14813, vol. 7544, file 29,131-5 Pt. 1, NAC.
12Scott to Pratt, March 11, 1928, Graham to Scott, May 25, 1928, and Scott to Caldwell, July 4, 1928, RG10, Reel C-14813, vol. 7544, file 29,131-5 Pt. 1, NAC.
13Acting Indian Agent to Graham, January 18, 1927, RG10, vol. 11950, Shannon No. 7, NAC; Murison to Graham, October 2, 1928, RG10, Reel C-14813, vol. 7544, file 29,131-5, Pt. 1, NAC.
14Graham to Scott, October 6, 1928, McKillop to Indian Affairs, October 10, 1929 and Graham to Scott, November 5, 1929, RG10, Reel C-14813, vol. 7544, file 29,131-5, Pt. 2, NAC.
15Stewart to Giroux,(copy) February 14, 1930 and Scott to Baxter, January 14, 1932, RG10, Reel C-14813, vol. 7544, file 29,131-5, Pt. 2, NAC.
16Schmidt to Secretary, August 12, 1938, RG10, Reel C-14813, vol. 7544, file 29,131-5, Pt. 2, NAC.
17Olive Patricia Dickason, “Treaty Eight—Context and Interpretations.” (Unpublished papers, courtesy of Olive Dickason, 1999).