Ottawa tells Saskatchewan Cree Nation it's 'deeply sorry' for assimilative 'colony scheme'

The federal government has made a national apology to a Saskatchewan First Nation community for a scheme that breached treaty and fiduciary agreements by creating a farm colony that took over the nation’s land and contributed to the assimilation of Indigenous people.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller delivered the apology on behalf of the federal government to members of the Peepeekisis Cree Nation on the reserve, just northwest of Balcarres, Sask.

“On behalf of Canada, I apologize for these actions,” Miller said Wednesday. “They caused great harm to your community, your language and your culture, and for this we are deeply sorry.”

Miller said that not many Canadians know the history of the File Hills Colony Scheme and “we must acknowledge that.”

Peepeekisis Chief Francis Dieter says he welcomes the apology from the government.

“Today is one step of many steps towards reconciliation,” Dieter said.

The meaning of reconciliation can be interpreted differently, Dieter said, referring to Pope Francis’s string of apologies for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools during his visit to Canada. Dieter said he believes the Pope’s words weren’t enough, that everyone who “took part in how they treated us — our grandparents, our great-grandparents” — needs to apologize.

Peepeekisis Cree Nation Chief Francis Dieter, right, says he welcomes the apology from the government. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

In December 2020 the Cree nation voted in favour of accepting a $150-million federal settlement  that covered Canada’s breach of obligations, including transferring and settling industrial and residential school graduates onto the nation’s land in 1898, as well as selling off “prime agricultural Peepeekisis reserve lands,” according to the federal government release. Both were done without the Cree nation’s consent.

The federal government announced it had finalized the agreement with the Cree nation in August 2021.

The settlement allowed the nation, about 110 kilometres northeast of Regina, the option to acquire nearly as much as 18,720 acres of land to be added to its reserve land.

Dieter says he hopes the funds from the settlement will help address the social ills and be used to purchase even more land for the community and development projects.

According to the nation’s website, Peepeekisis was chosen as the location for the File Hills Colony in the late 1800s. The colony progressively took more land from the nation as it continued.

It aimed to create “an agrarian First Nation and [assimilate] Aboriginals into the colonial farming lifestyle.”

“The Colony was meant to encourage pupils who graduated from residential school to abandon traditional ways of life and permanently adopt a non-Aboriginal homesteading farmer lifestyle,” the website reads.

Miller said the community demanded an apology for the colony.

“By delivering this formal apology on behalf of the government of Canada we’re acknowledging the wrongs of the past and we’re taking another step toward reconciliation and a renewed nation-to-nation relationship,” Miller said.

Colin Stonechild, a headman with Peepeekisis, said that forgiveness is the true path to what Indigenous people want: to heal, move forward and have true reconciliation.

“If we don’t have forgiveness, there’s never going to be reconciliation,” he said.

“That’s the only thing, I think, that’s going to get us through and liberate us from trauma is being forgiving and understanding because if we don’t we’re going to be stuck in those ruts of trauma.”

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By Jon Doe