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Opinion: 63 Years Later — The Siksika Land Claim Settlement Finally Settled


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In December 2021, 77 per cent of the Siksika Nation of southern Alberta voted in favour of a one-time payment of $1.3 billion from the federal government over a wrongful 1910 surrender of 115,000 acres of their reserve. They lost almost half of what was then known as the Blackfoot Reserve, including prime agricultural land and resources, as well as sacred and ceremonial sites. The Siksika initiated the claim for redress 63 years ago.

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Most Canadians are unaware of how the Wilfrid Laurier government (1896 – 1911) sought to eliminate or diminish First Nations reserves in Western Canada. This began under the administration of Sir John A. Macdonald, starting with the eradication of the Papaschase Reserve in a campaign led by Frank Oliver, founder of the Edmonton Bulletin, that was complete by 1888. The process accelerated under the Liberals with the surrender of all or sections of many reserves, particularly where the land was coveted by settlers.

A variety of fraudulent, irregular tactics and inducements were used to obtain surrenders. Under the Indian Act, a “surrender” of reserve land could only take place at a meeting attended by and with the consent of the majority of the male adults of the First Nation. But government officials manipulated or got around this procedure. Tactics included not providing adequate notice of meetings, not reading and/or translating surrender agreements, offering to distribute large sums of money, withholding rations, not properly recording the votes, permitting ineligible people to sign surrender documents and holding numerous meetings until the desired outcome was achieved. In the 1910 Siksika surrender, tactics included pressure to sell being applied over many years, ineligible voters, improper notice, no voter list, divide-and-conquer and aggressive pressure tactics. Speculation and corruption characterized the surrender process, with some government officials profiting.

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Indian Affairs placed the needs of settlers over its obligations to protect and assist First Nations, by aggressively pursuing land surrenders. As Minister of the Interior and head of Indian Affairs (1905-11), Oliver was zealous in pursuing and facilitating reserve land surrenders, through amendments to the Indian Act that enhanced cash enticements, that expropriated parts of reserves and that permitted the relocation of reserves close to towns. Oliver regarded settler interests and needs as paramount, stating in the House of Commons in 1906 that “if it becomes a question between the Indian and the Whites, the interests of the Whites will have to be provided for.” Oliver boasted that between 1896 and 1909, 289,897 hectares of reserve land was sold.

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Oliver played an active role in the Siksika loss of land, visiting the reserve in 1909 and telling them: “It might be better to sell what they do not use for a big bag of money, which could give them money for ever and ever. . . ”

The “money for ever and ever” promised was not in evidence in 1960 when a visiting journalist found “ramshackle, uninsulated houses without foundations, with cracks and broken windows, patched up with rags and cardboard.” Siksika Chief Clarence McHugh told the journalist the houses were built in 1912 from the proceeds of the land sale and “are now almost falling apart.” McHugh said in 1959 that 90 per cent of the band lived on about $8 of rations per month. “They told us they would give us a bag of money which would never empty, but somehow, that bag developed a great big hole,” McHugh said.

McHugh led a 1958 Siksika delegation to Ottawa that launched this claim. A first outcome was that Indian Affairs removed documents kept by the Indian agents at Siksika. McHugh persisted, saying in 1964, “They cut our reserve up like a Christmas turkey and wasted our money.” It is finally settled, but as the present Chief Ouray Crowfoot said this “is not reconciliation. We will never be restored to the same as before these breaches took place.”

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