How this First Nation was cheated out of its land – and in a flood zone

The water was fast, unforgiving.

Within days, the Peguis First Nation flood, considered the worst the community of Interlake, Manitoba has ever experienced, displaced approximately 1,600 people and destroyed hundreds of homes. Peguis has 3,521 members usually living on reserve and 6,504 members living off reserve.

Manitoba’s largest First Nations community is no stranger to flooding — in recent decades residents have been driven from their homes by rising waters on several occasions — but it hasn’t always been the case .

A few generations ago, the community lived on prime farmland just north of Winnipeg, away from the flood-prone delta of the Fisher River, about 100 miles (160 km) north of the capital where it sits today.

And in a way, the story of how they were pushed so far north into Manitoba’s Interlake region – a decision motivated by racism and propelled by a dodgy vote – is Manitoba’s story. , said Niigaan Sinclair, professor of Indigenous studies at the University. of Manitoba.

“You can map Manitoba by the movements of Indigenous peoples, so unfortunately the history of Peguis is not anomalous,” said Sinclair, who is also a member of the First Nation.

“But it’s particularly awful for me as every year I see my loved ones having [a] massive amount of property damage, their livelihoods constantly under strain and the fact that it is simply impossible to make a way of life…in this territory we have been forced to live on.

Black River First Nation’s Damian Bird and Peguis First Nation’s Emma Bird worked to put sand in a home in Peguis on Friday after the Fisher River overflowed its banks, flooding a large area of ​​the Lower East Coast region. ‘Interlake, northern Manitoba. (Jaison Empson/CBC)


At the turn of the 20th century, the lands just northeast of Winnipeg were known as the St. Peter’s Reserve, ancestor of today’s Peguis First Nation. Today, the area is home to the town of Selkirk.

The people of St. Peter’s were successful farmers, said Karen Froman, an assistant professor at the University of Winnipeg who teaches Indigenous history.

But an idea persists among the settlers that the First Nations are incapable of using the land properly.

“There was pressure and resentment from the settler population to remove Indigenous people from productive and valuable lands,” said Froman, who is Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River.

“It’s racism, plain and simple.”

People are pictured at the old St. Peter’s Reserve circa 1880 in this file photo. The people of St. Peter’s were forced to relocate to the current site of Peguis First Nation following a 1907 land surrender later deemed illegal. (Robert Bell fonds/Library and Archives Canada)

When the nearby growing community of Selkirk experienced an economic boom, government officials began to condemn the reservation as “a loss to the district’s prosperity”, she said.

So, in 1907, they devised a plan for the reservation land to be surrendered — although the people of St. Peter’s “totally opposed it,” Froman said.

A “fake” vote

By all accounts, the vote on whether the First Nation would surrender its lands to the government “was pretty dodgy,” she said.

The vote took place in September, when many members were away hunting, fishing and trapping, and was scheduled on short notice, Froman said. Many St. Peter’s residents were unable to fit into the small school where the vote took place.

The vote itself was also confusing, with an official at one point telling voters to pick a side based on who wanted $90 — not who wanted to hand over their land — even though it was unclear in what line people were supposed to stand, she said.

Still, Froman said, the result was close: 107 for, 98 against. It was not the majority of the 233 eligible voters. But the government decided it had won a majority of votes, although no record was kept of who voted, Sinclair said.

Niigaan Sinclair is a professor of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba and a member of the Peguis First Nation. (Radio Canada)

“You can’t call it a vote. It was a sham,” he said. “The land has been stolen, period.”

The St. Peter’s reservation was dissolved and its residents were forced from the site where they had been for generations to a new site chosen by the government, Froman said.

A new home – for some

What awaited the new Peguis Nation, named according to chef Peguiswho had led a band of Saultaux to establish a settlement at Netley Creek and later St. Peter’s – was a far cry from the thriving community they once knew, Froman said.

There were no houses, schools, churches, or even roads.

“They took a hell of a step back when they moved,” said Bill Shead, whose great-grandfather, William Asham, was a former St. Peter’s chef who was present at the meeting during the vote.

It was “garrigue, poor land – a kind of swamp and no real big trees”.

But others refused to leave, Froman said.

Some First Nations people who remained undertook free(a process of surrendering First Nation status under the Indian Act), while some Métis asked for a certificate to try to keep their land. But many ended up losing it anyway, she said.

A map shows St. Peter’s Reserve in its original location, which the town of Selkirk now calls home. (Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds/Library and Archives Canada)

Others refused to leave outright, instead facing legal consequences.

Trevor Greyeyes said that’s what happened to his family, who belong to the former neighboring Netley Creek First Nation, which the government combined with the St. Peter’s reserve to save money after the signing of the Treaty 1.

This decision meant that their land was included in the illegal surrender, even though they occupied the marsh area until they were arrested for trespassing in 1931. In a trial the following year, they were given two choice: move to the new site of the Peguis First Nation, or go to jail.

“As you can imagine, there were quite a few people who said, ‘Well, I’m moving,'” Greyeyes said.

“There were a number who refused. So these men were imprisoned.”

A court document bearing the words “His Majesty the King against the Indians entering Old St. Peter’s Reserve, Manitoba” is illustrated. (Submitted by Trevor Greyeyes)

Although the land surrender was declared invalid in 1911, that decision was ignored by government officials who insisted the First Nation move, Froman said.

“The rationale and explanation provided by officials, and which in fact became embedded in the mentality of the settlers, was the lie, the fiction that the people of St. Peter’s willingly sold and abandoned their land,” a- she declared.

“People didn’t go there of their own free will, despite the historical account…that people somehow bowed their heads in obedience and quietly fled into the bush.”

To advance

But despite everything that happened, the residents of St. Peter’s — now Peguis — held no grudges, Shead said.

“They went on with their lives and rebuilt a community, in very difficult circumstances, which thrived,” he said, recalling his own grandparents’ house, built with logs from the forest on the new reserve.

After being driven from their original lands, the members of what is now Peguis First Nation built a new community for themselves. The 1960 opening of a model home on the First Nation, built entirely by teenagers as a school project, is pictured in the nearby community of Hodgson. (Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds/Library and Archives Canada)

And they didn’t stop there. In 2009, they voted in favor of a land claims settlement worth $126 million to compensate for land stolen more than a century earlier.

“They won – that’s how I see it, anyway,” Shead said.

“[They used] their ability and intelligence to educate themselves and seek redress for past wrongs, using our system, education and the rule of law. »

But today, the community is still dealing with the consequences of relocating to such a flood-prone area, Chief Glenn Hudson said, reiterating his call for long-term flood mitigation measures in the area.

“We deserve better, especially when our land was taken from us illegally,” Hudson said.

“People need to understand and know the story of how our lands were cheated out of us.”

Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson says his community needs permanent flood protection. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

It’s a sentiment shared by Elder Ruth Christie, a member of Peguis First Nation — not just to raise awareness of her community’s history today, but to ensure its stories are preserved for tomorrow.

“The ancients who knew these stories, they are now dying,” Christie said.

“If young people are not interested in the history of their people…that history will be lost.”