September 25, 2018

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Fox Lake appeals to Ottawa about reserve land

Band leaders say Cree Nation has been left vulnerable by historic injustice

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The Keeyask Dam project site near Gillam.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The Keeyask Dam project site near Gillam.

OTTAWA — Fox Lake Cree Nation leaders say band members have been made vulnerable to abuse and upheaval from Manitoba Hydro projects because of their inability to secure a foothold within the town of Gillam.

The band is seeking Ottawa's intervention in an attempt to secure more reserve land, saying it would help restore both economic opportunities and cultural practices.

Last week, the Manitoba government released a bombshell report by the arm's-length Clean Environment Commission, detailing allegations of physical abuse and harassment by Hydro workers dating to the 1960s and claims of sexual abuse with RCMP complicity.

The province incorporated Gillam as a town in 1966. “All of a sudden, we were squatters,” Fox Lake chief executive officer Robert Wavey said in an interview last week.

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OTTAWA — Fox Lake Cree Nation leaders say band members have been made vulnerable to abuse and upheaval from Manitoba Hydro projects because of their inability to secure a foothold within the town of Gillam.

The band is seeking Ottawa's intervention in an attempt to secure more reserve land, saying it would help restore both economic opportunities and cultural practices.

Last week, the Manitoba government released a bombshell report by the arm's-length Clean Environment Commission, detailing allegations of physical abuse and harassment by Hydro workers dating to the 1960s and claims of sexual abuse with RCMP complicity.

The province incorporated Gillam as a town in 1966. "All of a sudden, we were squatters," Fox Lake chief executive officer Robert Wavey said in an interview last week.

He claims Ottawa helped the province establish Gillam as a town by surveying the land a decade prior, helping finance the community's transmission line and ceding federal land to the province.

Wavey said Ottawa facilitated the transfer of plots of land in the 1970s, allowing Fox Lake to set up a small casino and some business along Kettle Crescent, which he said finally became reserve land in 2009. Known as the A Kwis Ki Mahka Indian Reserve, it spans just 3.21 acres within Gillam, which by footprint is among Canada’s 10 largest towns/cities.

"By the time it got around to us, to create a reserve here, it was whatever was left around. It was already too late. They’d already built the town around us," he said.

The Free Press could not find documentation to directly substantiate Wavey’s recounting of events, but Ottawa did not dispute his claims. Wavey said without substantial reserve land, Fox Lake couldn't access duly-owed compensation.

In 1977, the Manitoba government signed the Northern Flood Agreement with five First Nations, retroactively giving the province land rights for dams, in exchange for parcels of land, hunting rights, job opportunities and $5 million for economic-development projects.

Fox Lake wasn’t among the beneficiaries, as noted in a 2001 report by the Manitoba Aboriginal Rights Coalition, "perhaps because they did not have reserve lands that were directly affected."

Band member Franklin Arthurson claimed in testimony to the coalition negotiations for reserve land were still ongoing around the time of the NFA, but Indian Affairs officials "would require Fox Lake First Nation to forgive all past wrongs of the government in order to finally receive lands promised to them, pursuant to Treaty 5."

Meanwhile, the CEC report itself noted the lack of land rights contributed to Fox Lake’s cultural disruption.

"They needed permits to build houses and build open fires. It was no longer possible to walk to the edge of town and collect firewood or hunt game," the report reads. "It is often the case, for example, that they can access what used to be traditional Fox Lake land only by travelling in the company of Manitoba Hydro employees"

Wavey said Fox Lake can’t heal from sexual abuse, discrimination and the legacy of residential schools until it can establish a larger reserve in its historical territory.

"We want to take back our place in the town of Gillam. We want the federal government to agree they had a role to play. They were culpable in what happened to us, in not providing us with that reserve land back then."

In any case, Gillam did establish a second piece of reserve land in Bird, a village 53 km east established in 1985, too late for the NFA funding agreements.

About half of Fox Lake’s 1,200 band members now live in Gillam and Bird — many moved to Winnipeg and Thompson for work. Fox Lake leaders suggest more would have stayed if they had economic viability in their homeland.

"We were the most impacted with the hydroelectric projects," claimed Chief Walter Spence, who sees a direct connection between not owning sufficient land and reports of exploitation by Hydro workers.

Spence said he’d made "several presentations" to federal Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett about the reserve issue. He said he raised it with her in late July, asking for a response within three months.

He said Bennett and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister should visit Gillam, located roughly 750 km northeast of Winnipeg. "We need the two levels of government to come here, because we need to work on a process to rebuild our community."

Ottawa took six days to respond, and did not provide any details on how it plans to handle the reserve issue, nor the version of events outlined by Wavey and Spence.

Instead, Indigenous Services Canada spokeswoman Martine Stevens wrote the government "is committed to the efficient implementation of Treaty Land Entitlement agreements" and "continues to work with FLCN" on their demand for reserve land within Gillam.

Both Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott and Bennett have reserved any comment on the CEC report.

"The government of Canada is aware of the serious and disturbing allegations," Stevens wrote.

— with files from Alexandra Paul

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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