For descendants of two First Nations in the Edmonton region, seeking justice for historical wrongs has been a hard-fought battle beset by legal challenges and divided leadership.
The Papaschase First Nation and Michel First Nation once held lands around Amiskwaciy Waskahikan — what is now Edmonton — but through the course of the 19th and 20th centuries lost federal recognition and were left landless.
“We no longer had Crown lands, which meant then individual people had to hold the state accountable for the dispossession of illegal lands,” said Jodi Calahoo-Stonehouse, executive director of the Yellowhead Indigenous Education Foundation and Michel First Nation member.
The Friends of Michel Society took the federal government to court in 2001 to assert rights on behalf of members and descendants, but the case was dismissed in 2015.
Multiple organizations now claim to represent the Michel First Nation and its descendants.
“People have become so frustrated over the years and divided amongst our community,” Calahoo-Stonehouse said.
Those divisions are similar in other dispossessed nations and are a colonial legacy, she said.
“When a band has been dispossessed of their lands, they no longer reside together … and so they don’t actually particularly know each other intimately or that well.”
The Michel Band was created in 1878 through an adhesion to Treaty 6, an agreement between the Canadian Crown and First Nations covering central Alberta and Saskatchewan. It was pressured to give away land in the ensuing decades, according to band history. Some families chose enfranchisement — surrendering their First Nation status for the same rights as non-Indigenous Canadians.
Calahoo-Stonehouse says government antagonism, unfair restrictions enforced by the Indian Act and racist attitudes from settler neighbours put members in a precarious position.
The entire band was enfranchised in 1958. Many have been able to regain status through Bill C-31, which amended the Indian Act to return status to certain individuals including those who were enfranchised, but despite this the federal government does not recognize the band.
Hadley Friedland, a University of Alberta associate professor specializing in Indigenous law, said in lieu of existing legal structures, descendants of landless nations have used societies and corporations as vehicles for representation.
“These aren’t governing structures, they’re ill-suited for that,” Friedland said. “But there’s not really another choice.”
There are no provisions in the Indian Act for a dissolved band to regain recognition. The minister of Indigenous-Crown Relations would have to make a discretionary decision, Friedland said.
Another Edmonton-area band, the Papaschase First Nation, signed an adhesion to Treaty 6 in 1877. They were sequestered to reserve lands in southeast Edmonton but, according to band history, members were later removed from the land and forced to take scrip — financial vouchers in exchange for land rights — or join nearby First Nations.
In 2008, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the Papaschase First Nation could not pursue a land claim. It said a group of Papaschase descendants indicated in 1974 they planned to proceed with a land claim “in the near future” and that too much time had passed to proceed.
“They don’t want to admit that they were wrong, that it was basically all fraud that was committed,” said Chief Calvin Bruneau, who is in his third term as head of the Papaschase Descendants Council.
The lack of federal recognition imposes roadblocks, he said.
“Because of that we don’t get funding like every other nation.”
Also, some political entities use the lack of recognition as an excuse not to engage, he said.
Bruneau has focused on building relationships with businesses and governments. In 2018, the Assembly of First Nations officially recognized the Papaschase First Nation as a member.
The next year, the nation bought a gas station in south Edmonton on former reserve lands. Bruneau wants to see the Indigenous-staffed business become tax exempt as with other First Nation-operated businesses on reserve land.
He sees the gas station as building an economic capacity and a precedent for getting land back.
“In terms of reconciliation and compensation, yes, you need to recognize us as a nation,” he said.
“And then we can start dealing with all the issues of the surrender and other things that they did.”
Another group claiming to represent Papaschase descendants, formed this year, contests the validity of Bruneau’s 2019 re-election.
Members of Papaschase First Nation #136 Association have filed against the federal government but the claim was struck down as having been decided in 2008.
Chief Darlene Misik, who is also the group’s lawyer, said their argument is that “treaty children” could not have legally taken scrip. They are now in the process of appealing.
“We maintain that we continue to be treaty peoples and we want our treaty promises upheld.”
Calahoo-Stonehouse said since the discovery of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, there is a societal shift as Canadians grapple with the impact of genocide.
Indigenous-Crown Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Marc Miller pledged to return stolen land when he assumed office in October.
“Now I’m seeing good steps forward,” Calahoo-Stonehouse said.
“And the hope is that the Canadian state will be able to reconcile these harms that were done and that we move forward together as our ancestors and predecessors intended by signing treaty together.”