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First Nations farmers

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As the days begin to shorten and the nights to cool off, a sense of nostalgia always overtakes me as I think back to the days of my youth working on our family ranch and the rush to get more work completed than there were hours in a day.

As a kid, I particularly despised the itchy nature of stooking square bales, despite the fact they were a critical part of raising cattle on what was one of the northernmost Angus ranches in all of Canada, on Opaskwayak Cree Nation near The Pas.

Today, I look back on those days with pride -- not just for the contribution I made to our ranch but because I was part of an agrarian journey that was not as uncommon among First Nations people as you might expect.

Long before contact with European settlers, many First Nations people in North America were natural horticulturalists who not only harvested wild rice and grew potatoes and corn as staples for their families, but used their bounty as goods of trade far beyond our modern borders.

In fact, many leaders saw working the land as a means to self-reliance and, in negotiations with the government for access to the land, pushed for such things as farming tools and instruction. Many also saw farming as a way to contribute to the larger economy.

Sarah Carter, professor of native studies at the University of Alberta and author of Lost Harvest: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy writes about the success many First Nations had in farming in the early post-treaty era of the 1880s.

"McColl and other Indian Affairs officials continually boasted about St. Peter's (now Peguis) as the 'banner' reserve of Manitoba. The residents had comfortable homes, cattle, sheep, pigs and up-to-date farm machinery. Most attended church regularly and could read and write.

"They were, according to one journalist, 'as intelligent in every way as the average member of the Anglo-Saxon race.' A stranger passing thus through St. Peter's, noting the buildings, might be pardoned for looking upon it as an advanced pioneer settlement. Many of the houses are as pretentious as those among the white settlements."

Carter goes on to write that "the history of St. Peter's encapsulates the experiences of native Canadian farmers throughout the Prairies. Many made successful adaptations to agriculture, some well before the treaties were negotiated, as in the case of St. Peter's.

"During the 1870s and 1880s, reserve farmers coped with environmental setbacks as did all other farmers but they extended their acreage, increased their herds and acquired the machinery necessary to maintain these.

"With increased immigration after 1896, a rise in wheat prices and land values, non-natives began to cast jealous eyes on reserve land that was in prime agricultural zones. The arguments used throughout the West in support of surrender were that the land was not effectively used, that the presence of native people was a drawback to the prosperity of a district, and that reserves close to towns (were) damaging to the morals of all."

As a young boy, I always wondered why there weren't more farms on reserves in Canada, especially given the sustainable economic contribution they would have made to First Nations families. Only later did I learn that farming exposes some major missteps in the relationship between government and First Nations.

After years of cultivating the soil, not only was prime land coerced from the hands of successful farmers, most particularly in soil-rich southern Manitoba, but via the Indian Act, the government implemented the Peasant Farming Policy, which outlawed the use of labour-saving farming machinery.

This left First Nations restricted in acreage to what could be cultivated by hand.

The rationale for such an absurd policy was that labour was a necessary part of farming and in transitioning to 'civilization,' First Nations people should not be denied the many lessons learned through hours spent using handmade tools. Even First Nations farmers who had purchased state-of-the-art machinery of the day were forced to revert to hand tools, despite having a long history of working the land using these very implements.

Needless to say, what were once-thriving First Nations farms ground to a halt with crops replaced by resentments.

I am challenged to find a positive response to the government policies that denied economic opportunities that were second nature to First Nations people in our country. In shutting them out of farming, not only were they stripped of their land but of a productive lifestyle that would have been life-changing.

I learned many lessons stooking bales in late August. The best of them is a continuing belief in the collective desire of my people to be contributing members of society. It is sad and unfortunate that so many roadblocks were put in our way.


James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding, and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2013 A11

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