Decades after the File Hills Colony Scheme split the Cree Nation of Peepeekisis into “originals” and “placements,” community members say a federal government apology could be a step toward mending the divisions.
This week, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller apologized to the nation on behalf of the Canadian government for setting up the colony which was seen as a social experiment and was, in many ways, a form of assimilation.
The colony gradually took land from the nation, without consent, offering it to native “graduates” selected by leaders of residential schools and industrial schools in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. These residents are often referred to as “placements”.
In 1906, only 29% of the original 26,600 acres of land remained for the nation’s original inhabitants. The Cree Nation of Peepeekisis is located approximately 100 kilometers northeast of Regina.
He intentionally divided the two communities.
More than this will help us reconcile with Canada, I think it will help us reconcile within our nation.– Sara Poitras, who has family roots in Peepeekisis
“For a very long time, it was always considered two reserves in one,” said Cheyanne Desnomie, Peepeekisis member and researcher at the University of Regina.
“You had people who were brought in, and under the direction of the Indian Agent, they were told not to communicate with the original members who were there because it was believed that if they did , they could regress and … undo everything that was ‘learned’ or ‘gained’ during the residential school period.”
Desnomie said the community has an “identity crisis” because although it calls itself a “Cree nation”, many people have been brought into the community from outside and may have other backgrounds, like the Lakota or the Métis.
Desnomie said the apology could be a step to closing the gap that has been created in the community.
Gregory Brass was born in the colony and spent most of his formative years there. He does not know if he should consider himself an investment since his grandfather was sent there as a Cree and Saulteaux interpreter, before taking agricultural land.
“A lot of times it was kind of inferred that the placements did that to the originals. Well, that wasn’t the case; it was the feds with their experience that imposed that on the total population,” a- he declared.
He felt the government’s apology was vague, but at least it puts the conversation back on the table.
Brass isn’t alone in doubting his roots.
“Unfortunately, I’m not 100% sure where my family comes from,” Sara Poitras, an elementary school teacher with family roots in Peepeekisis, said earlier this week when Miller apologized.
“I think a lot of us who come from Peepeekisis don’t know where we come from, where our families come from, because of that experience.”
She later spoke to CBC News and said the apology was important in addressing the division in the country, describing her “as the original members versus placements.”
“More than it will help us reconcile with Canada, I think it will help us reconcile within our nation.”
File Hills Settlement History
The colony’s story depends on who tells it, Desnomie said. Some oral histories say the colony began around 1898, while some written histories mark the start of the colony closer to 1906. The end of the colony has the same historical uncertainty, Desnomie said, but it appears to have collapsed around the 1950s.
The afternoon edition – Sask.9:08Government of Canada apologizes to First Nation in Saskatchewan
William Morris Graham, an Indian agent, was the architect of what appears to be the only social experiment of its kind, albeit unethical.
Indian Claims Commission documents described it as a means “to further the education of Indians and their assimilation into the non-Indian way of life.”
“Indian Agent Graham strictly controlled the daily lives of members of the Peepeekisis group.”
Desnomia described it as the colonizer’s attempt to create an “agrarian utopian population”.
She’s been studying the Colony project for about a decade, but even then she doesn’t know what would remedy the lasting damage caused by roughly half a century of Colony operations and another 35 years of legal battles.
A long-awaited apology
In August 2021, the federal government announced that it had concluded negotiations with the nation, leading to a $150 million payment and the option to purchase 18,720 acres of land to add to the reservation.
“Apologies don’t mean anything unless there’s action behind it,” Desnomie said.
Freda Koochikum worked on the File Hills Settlement claim, which was first submitted in 1986 and later concluded that Canada had breached its legal obligations to the band.
She agreed that “when an apology is made, there is always something to do, something more to come out of it.”
Desnomie said a step forward would be to provide land to the nation without having to pay for it.
Colin Stonechild, a Peepeekisis chief, told a press conference Wednesday that the nation would pursue adding land to the reservation.
Poitras said she doesn’t know “what needs to happen, but it just doesn’t seem done or settled to me.”
“We can never get back what we lost.”