“So,” says Pat Buffalo, “are you going to report what everybody else reports on—the shooting and the violence and all the stuff the media jumps on as soon as they hear it’s going on? Or are you at least going to do us the justice of reporting some of the good stuff that happens here?”
Buffalo is an elected band councillor with Samson Cree First Nation, a big man with long braids and a cowboy hat. We’re sitting in the lobby of a law office in Maskwacis, formerly Hobbema, a community of four First Nation bands—the Samson Cree, Ermineskin Cree, Louis Bull Tribe and Montana First Nation—an hour drive south of Edmonton. Also in the room are various current and former band councillors and Danika Littlechild, a lawyer from the Ermineskin Cree Nation. Her uncle is Wilton Littlechild, one of the three commissioners on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). I had seen her give a presentation at a conference in BC and she’d agreed to introduce me to people in Maskwacis.
In 2016 Maskwacis has high unemployment, high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, high suicide rates, a lack of infrastructure, problems with poor-quality drinking water and gang violence. The way to a more positive future for First Nations in Maskwacis and elsewhere, said Littlechild in her presentation, lies in a “transformational shift” wherein First Nations are “partners rather than subjects of federal and provincial law and policy.” This shift would include adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a framework for change. The core of the 2007 declaration, said Littlechild, is Article 3: “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
In Alberta the 2015 election of the NDP, along with the federal election of the Liberals, brought the hope of a changed relationship between First Nations and everyone else in the province. The need for positive change—across Canada—was highlighted in the December 2015 final report of the TRC. The first principle of “reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canada” said the report, was implementation of UNDRIP “at all levels and across all sectors of Canadian society.”
On July 7, 2015, Premier Rachel Notley sent her cabinet ministers a letter signalling the government’s intent to implement UNDRIP in a way “consistent with our Constitution and with Alberta law.” On May 9, 2016, at the UN in New York, federal Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett announced Canada will be “fully adopting” UNDRIP “within the laws of Canada.”
“It’s not about blame,” says Pat Buffalo, stirring cream into a Tim Hortons coffee in the lobby of the law office. “It’s about taking ownership. The problem is we’re living a mistaken identity. Under the Indian Act they defined us as ‘Indians’—in 1876, the same year Treaty 6 was signed. But the Act wasn’t part of the treaty negotiations. It’s a fiction,” he says. “We’re not ‘Indians.’ We’re not even ‘Cree.’ That’s a French word. We are nêhiyawak. That’s who we are.”
“Oil should have been a blessing, but it’s been a total curse. The money was huge and the royalties kept coming and then, just like that, it was over. That cause a lot of damage.” —Pat Buffalo
“Maskwacis” means “Bear Hills” in nêhiyawêwin, the Cree language. Located between Ponoka and Wetaskiwin along Highway 2A, the country here is rolling hills and fields surrounded by trees and brush. In 1891 a railway flag station on reserve was named “Hobbema” after a 17th-century Dutch landscape painter. That was the official name until January 1, 2014, when the community—including the administrative centre straddling the Ermineskin and Samson reserves—was officially renamed Maskwacis.
The nearly 320 km² area of Maskwacis includes the four First Nation reserves, along with Pigeon Lake 138A, a reserve owned jointly by all four bands. Samson has roughly 50 per cent of the population. Randy Littlechild, executive director of Maskwacis Health Services, says the reserves in total have over 15,000 band members.
The reserves were created with the signing of Treaty 6 in 1876. Canada’s Indian Act passed into law that same year, governing status Indians, bands and reserves. In his 2015 book From Treaties to Reserves: The Federal Government and Native Peoples in Territorial Alberta, 1870–1905, retired U of A professor D.J. Hall says the foundational principle of the Indian Act, 1876, was that “in law, there were two categories of people: Indians and whites (all others). The second principle was that Indians were classed as minors and therefore as wards of the state.” Ward status was meant to be temporary. In other words, the government wanted “Indians” to assimilate.
To speed the transition at Maskwacis, Cree children were taken from their parents and sent to Ermineskin Indian Residential School, run by the Catholic Church. Traditional forms of governance were replaced by an elected band council system on each reserve, with the federal government having the power to depose “unco-operative” elected leaders. Cultural practices such as the sun dance were outlawed and a pass system was established so that First Nations people needed permission from an Indian agent to leave the reserve.
In 1915 a delegation from Hobbema travelled to Ottawa to ask for changes to the Indian Act. They wanted “equal freedom with the white man” and protection for their tradition of collective land ownership. The government, they said, “should cease to treat them like children.” They also brought a cheque for $1,200 to donate to Canada’s First World War effort. But little changed. The Indian Act would not be extensively revised until 1951, to allow for the practice of traditional ceremonies, abolish the pass system and allow First Nations to organize and hire legal counsel. The next year, oil was found at the Pigeon Lake reserve. First Nations in Canada weren’t allowed to vote until 1960, but—at Maskwacis—before they could vote they got oil. Ready or not.
“Oil,” wrote John Barr in a 1984 essay “The Impact of Oil on Alberta: Retrospect and Prospect,” “let in dazzling rays of change,” which “made it possible to be first-class Canadians for the first time instead of just the dumb hicks from the West.” After the Leduc #1 strike by Imperial Oil in 1947, Texaco found the Bonnie Glen oil field in 1952, part of a Devonian reef system that geologists referred to as The Golden Trend. The oil here was light high-grade crude—“an oilman’s dream”—that spurted up into boreholes drilled by rigs in central Alberta, including Maskwacis, where at least a third of Bonnie Glen underlay the Pigeon Lake reserve. And the oil came with lots of gas.
In the 1970s the Maskwacis bands received 40 per cent of oil revenues and 70 per cent of gas revenues from drilling on reserve, up from the 10 per cent of the previous two decades. The royalty money was held in trust and administered by Indian Affairs Canada. Until 1987 the bands requisitioned what they needed for business initiatives, local projects and monthly royalty cheques to band members.
Once poor, the bands were now flush. New houses were built on reserve. Band members bought new cars and trucks. “Money is a big equalizer,” says Maskwacis historian Bruce Cutknife. “In the 1980s, at the height of it, merchants in Wetaskiwin who had been openly intolerant had to change; our money was an income for them.”
The windfall also brought social turbulence. In a 1984 report commissioned by the Department of Indian Affairs, Joe Dion, former president of the Indian Association of Alberta, wrote that rates of suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse increased on the oil-rich reserves. The report—never released—was leaked to the press in 1986. “During this development period there has been very little or no training done by the oil companies or by the government with the Indian people, nor does it appear that the bands themselves were encouraging this training,” wrote Dion. In an interview after the leak, he said: “The department was remiss and irresponsible. There could have been a plan, a policy, to prepare for the use of this money.”
In a Canadian Business story, former Samson Cree chief Victor Buffalo said that in the mid-1980s the feds encouraged the bands to put youth members’ royalty cheques into trusts and give the money out as a lump sum when they turned 18. “Age 18?” said Buffalo. “I don’t care if you’re in China, Los Angeles or Toronto. You get that kind of money, you’re going to blow it every time.”
In 1987 the bands negotiated with the feds to spend only the interest on the fund, at a rate tied to the yield on government bonds, which initially crested above 11 per cent but then steadily declined. By 1997 the Samson band had stopped giving monthly royalty cheques to individual members, though lump sum payments were still given to teenagers when they turned 18—a practice that continued until at least 2008. By then oil royalties had dried up. As an Edmonton Journal story put it in 2011, “The last oil well closed in 2000 and the last gas well was capped in 2007.”
Today some money still remains with the bands. Back in 1989 the Samson Cree sued the federal government for up to $1.5-billion for not investing the oil and gas royalties on their behalf. Ermineskin filed a similar suit in 1992. After a nearly 20-year legal saga, they lost in the Supreme Court of Canada, though the remaining funds were transferred from the government to independently run trust funds—some $350-million to Samson in 2006 and $240-million to Ermineskin in 2011. The catch is that the bands can only spend the interest, and the bulk of yearly expenditures go to debt payments and administration—for a fast-growing population with a median age of 25. “The problems are multiplying, but the funding is decreasing,” said Samson councillor Mario Swampy in a 2012 interview. The trust fund, he said, “is not a pool that we can just continually draw from… [we]’re basically living off the interest.”
“Oil should have been a blessing but it’s been a total curse,” says Pat Buffalo when I go for lunch with him in a restaurant in Ponoka. “The leadership of the day gave all that money out on a monthly basis, almost like dividends. The max was $750 a month per person, for everybody in Samson. You didn’t have to do anything to earn it. Just exist. Then they put 50 per cent of the kids’ money into trust and a lot of these kids cashed out over $100,000 when they turned 18.” He raises a hand in the air then swoops it low over the table. “The money was huge and the royalties kept coming and then, just like that, it was over. Needless to say that caused a lot of damage.”
Among the bad news stories: From 2013 to 2015, according to Randy Littlechild, an average of 15 to 16 people killed themselves in Maskwacis each year. “It used to be all young people,” he says. “Now it’s people in their 50s and 60s committing suicide too.”
“It’s about what’s best for the kids that come to our school. We limit the importance of hierarchy and put all our effort into the classroom. That’s where success is found.” —Brian Wildcat
An ex-paramedic and former president of CUPE local 3197 in Edmonton, Littlechild is head of Maskwacis Health Services—one of the main community agencies, along with Maskwacis Cultural College, that is run jointly by the four bands. Other administrative services are usually dealt with separately by each band, per the Indian Act, which still governs most facets of life on reserves. Health funding largely comes from the feds.
“[Last year] my budget for suicide prevention for all four bands was $50,000,” says Littlechild. “What can I do with that? We’re dealing with despair and hopelessness. So how do we fix it? I know things would improve if people stayed in school, if we had more jobs available, better health care with the proper funding, better housing and, most importantly, clean potable water—but it’s going to take time to change.”
In 2016—the 140th anniversary of the Indian Act—Alberta’s Minister of Indigenous Relations, Richard Feehan, and Minister of Human Services Irfan Sabir both visited Maskwacis to open dialogue with elected band councils and administration on how to improve infrastructure, housing and delivery of health services, including mental health, child welfare and education. Feehan also discussed implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Specific details were not forthcoming. “Changing a relationship will not happen overnight,” noted a vague and aspirational Indigenous Relations press release on UNDRIP on May 10, 2016.
In its final report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission asserts that the UN declaration “provides the necessary principles, norms and standards for reconciliation to flourish in 21st century Canada.” The declaration, the report states, affirms that “indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination is the centralizing principle from which all other rights flow.”
Self-determination, according to indigenous thinkers such as Thomas King, bestselling author of The Inconvenient Indian, can be understood as sovereignty, which in practice is “a collection of practical powers that include, among others, the authority to levy taxes, set the criteria for citizenship, control trade and negotiate agreements and treaties.”
“He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead. She’s very messed up. He’s an alcoholic. She’s dead. Geez, there’s only five or six of us still alive. For some of us, reconciliation is not possible.” —Rick Lightning
In this context the implication of UNDRIP is that the Indian Act—which authorizes the federal government to administer the day-to-day lives of registered “Indians”—must be scrapped. But there is no agreement as to what would replace it. “There has been significant confusion and uncertainty about what it means to implement the Declaration,” wrote Ken Coates and Blaine Favel in a 2016 report for the MacDonald-Laurier Institute. “Establishing full self-determination outside of the Canadian legal and constitutional framework would mean nothing less than a fundamental change to our system of governance.”
On July 12, 2016, federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould spoke at the general meeting of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations and said—contrary to previous policy statements from her government—“As much as I would like to cast into the fire of history the Indian Act, so that nations can be reborn in its ashes, this is not a practical option… simplistic approaches such as adopting the United Nations declaration as being Canadian law are unworkable.” A few weeks later she said, “We need to look at each article” of UNDRIP and implement changes in “a controlled manner that respects where indigenous communities are in terms of rebuilding.”
As she further clarified: “The Indian Act will not be gotten rid of in one fell swoop.” Still, as Coates and Favel wrote in an August 12, 2016, Globe and Mail op-ed, “UNDRIP is far from gone on the Canadian scene.” The declaration will remain a guidepost for change. “The new relationship,” they wrote, echoing Ermineskin lawyer Danika Littlechild, should be “founded on true collaboration and real partnership, with the unequivocal goal of ensuring that indigenous peoples play a central role in the creation of indigenous policy and priority setting in Canada.”
A curative relationship is hard to build. In Maskwacis I went for lunch at Rick Lightning’s house. As a child he attended Ermineskin residential school. He’s now 62, a former Ermineskin band councillor and currently a mediator and traditional healer. He shows me a black-and-white photo of his Grade 5 class. “He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead,” says Lightning, pointing at children in the class. “She’s very messed up. He’s an alcoholic. She’s dead. Geez, there’s only five or six of us still alive.” He sets the photo on the kitchen table. “For some of us,” he says, “reconciliation is not possible.”
Despite the challenges, research does indicate that greater self-determination leads to better outcomes in indigenous communities. In BC, a long-term study by Michael Chandler and Christopher Lalonde, from UBC and UVIC, found that First Nation communities with more control over their own affairs are “more successful in insulating their youth against the risks of suicide.” Language retention could be key to this outcome. In communities where most people had little connection to their indigenous language, rates of child suicide were found to be six times higher than in communities where “a majority of members reported a conversational knowledge” of their language.
In analogous studies in the US, researchers with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and the Native Nations Institute at University of Arizona found “nations that had taken control of their own affairs and had backed up that control with capable, culturally appropriate, and effective governing institutions did significantly better economically than those that had not.”
In Maskwacis, over time, the bands have gained control over some aspects of life on reserve. At Ermineskin the old residential school has been replaced—at the same location—by a newly built elementary school and a junior/senior high, both painted with Cree motifs, with spacious, light-filled interiors. School funding still comes from the federal government, but Indian Affairs gave control of education on reserve to the band in 1991.
“Early on, we struggled to operate the schools,” says Miyo Wahkohtowin Education director Brian Wildcat. “We had to learn what it means to be a Cree school. But we persevered. Now we have over 1,000 students a year. For us it’s about building a strong community.”
Good relations is miyo wahkohtowin in Plains Cree. It can also mean “reconciliation.” In 2004 Miyo Wahkohtowin Education had two Grade 12 graduates pass through their system, which teaches the Alberta curriculum integrated with Cree culture, Cree language classes, and free breakfast and lunch programs. Twenty-one students graduated in 2014. School-wide, provincial achievement test scores in math and language arts remain below the Alberta average, but Wildcat says attendance is up, dropout rates are down and staff turnover is low. In 2013 an independent review found Ermineskin’s education system has strong leadership, a clear separation of finances from band politics, culturally appropriate strategic planning, fair dispute resolution mechanisms and high community satisfaction.
“It’s about what’s best for the kids that come to our school,” says Wildcat. “We limit the importance of hierarchy and put all our effort into the classroom. That’s where success is found.”
On June 21, 2016, the four band chiefs in Maskwacis signed a letter of intent with Alberta’s Minister of Education, David Eggen, aiming to amalgamate their four boards and increase their bargaining power with the federal government for education funding on reserve. The province estimates funding for students on reserve is 80 per cent of that provided for students off-reserve. In a separate declaration the chiefs reaffirmed nêhiyawêwin as the official language of Maskwacis, to encourage the teaching of the language.
We are nêhiyawak—a sovereign people,” says Pat Buffalo, at our lunch in Ponoka. He’s a busy guy: among other duties he’s on the board of Samson-owned Peace Hills Insurance. In a separate project under his leadership, the Samson band opened Nipsis Café in spring 2016, built and staffed by youth from the reserve.
“The Indian Act system doesn’t work for us,” he says. “But we have to ask ourselves: What is going to work for us? How do you create hope? The definition of wellness is taking ownership and responsibility for who you are and what you create. That’s also a definition of sovereignty. totamaso is our word: Do it yourself. If we want someone to save us we’re going to wait forever.”
Tadzio Richards is an associate editor at Alberta Views. His story on Alberta’s forests ran in June 2016.