(Members of Papaschase band in the Fort Edmonton area, circa unknown. Courtesy: Papaschase band website)
APTN National News
EDMONTON — Long before the City of Edmonton was established, there lived an Indigenous tribe since time immemorial.
Then in the late 1800’s the Federal Government moved in to settle the area, and soon after used coercion and fraud to displace the Papaschase Band and steal their lands, said Chief Calvin Bruneau.
He said what happened has been lost in the city’s consciousness, however the Papaschase people are still alive and well today.
“The government wants it forgotten, but it’s always been kept alive in families,” said Bruneau.
“We are asserting our own sovereignty and saying we never surrendered the lands.”
His ancestors lived in what is now the Rossdale Flats and River Valley area in Edmonton and were designated a reserve of approximately 60 square miles upon signing Treaty 6.
The reserve stretched across the North Saskatchewan River and into what is now Edmonton’s south side. As the area began to grow settlers became uncomfortable with living so close to an Indian band and sent petitions to Ottawa to have them removed.
“They didn’t want the reserve too close to development. They said they didn’t want Indians around here because they were bad for business and the land was needed for betterment,” said Bruneau.
By 1886 most of the band members, due to living in desperate conditions because of disparities like the dying out of their main source of food, the buffalo, took Metis script in exchange for their lands.
With just 82 members left the government labelled them “stragglers” and moved them to the Enoch reserve just west of Edmonton.
“By 1888 they called a meeting to vote to get the land surrendered,” said Bruneau who added that the three men that voted were not the majority needed to make the transaction legal. “The government thought they had majority consent, meanwhile we have records that say eight of them should’ve been consulted. It was illegal. The surrender is invalid, so is everything else. It was complete, outright fraud what they did. They all wanted this land and they wanted our ancestors out of the way.”
Original band members ended up mostly dispersing to the surrounding First Nations in the Treaty 6 vicinity including Enoch, Alexander, the Maskwacis bands, Saddle Lake, Beaver Lake, Goodfish Lake, Kehewin, Frog Lake and Onion Lake.
The Papaschase lands were surveyed and sold and today are owned by the private, corporate and civil sector.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that a few band members first took legal action alleging having suffered significant damages to their culture, language, and collective identity, including the loss of Indian status, band membership, economic opportunities and their lands.
The claim was filed on behalf of members that had amalgamated to Enoch Cree Nation in 1973, however it was rejected by the Indian Claims Commission siting non-sufficient claimants, and was not further pursued.
“I was wondering why it took so long for our ancestors to do anything about this stuff. You look at the past history; residential schools, then they weren’t even allowed to leave the reserves, and back then it was illegal for them to even hire a lawyer. So you realize what our ancestors went through- it was out right war against us you might say,” said Bruneau.
Other attempts to seek legal retribution have so far, proved futile. However, Bruneau said the band continues to focusing on working with officials to reconcile. They maintain that a fiduciary obligation is owed to the descendants, because Canada reneged on the terms of the Treaty by breaking up the band and essentially stealing their land.
“We are owed land and compensation. Based on international law a contract has been breached. That is our legal position. We have a legal case and it can be processed through the Indian Claims Tribunal within 3 – 5 years,” said Bruneau.
“The city, the province and the feds- they’ve all been making money off those lands on the Southside over the years. With land sales, taxes and who knows what kind of resources have been taken out of there over the years. They owe us big time.”
However, the band is hoping a settlement agreement can be reached outside of the courts that could help rebuild the Papaschase community.
“All three levels of government have to acknowledge the moral and legal wrongs committed against the Papaschase people. It would be in the best interests of all levels of government to co-operate to settle this case. The Papaschase First Nation has been peaceful in its dealings with the governments on different matters, especially when it comes to burial grounds.”
In 2001 during a planned reconstructing of the Walterdale Bridge crossing the North Saskatchewan River near the Rossdale Flats area a Papaschase burial ground was unearthed. The city and province worked with band members to establish a memorial in this area and to redirect construction of the bridge.
Now, the band is regathering and looking to further build their nation. They currently have 1,000 members, however descendants continue to come forward and could end up being as many as 10,000.
Ezra Bergsma said when she first learned she was a descendant of Papaschase she felt proud, but also wanted to help rectify what happened.
“You want to fix it,” she said. “It was stolen. But the blood speaks louder, the families speak louder and I’m hopeful for a future.”
Although, the band is not recognized under the Indian Act, area chiefs and the City of Edmonton do acknowledge the Papaschase people.
Made up of a functioning traditional chief and council band system, Chief Bruneau works on a voluntary basis, attends events and tribal meetings, however he is not yet allowed to participate in any Treaty organized voting.
Bruneau believes the success of the nation will be born through the establishment of sole economic initiatives, cultural establishments, coupled with joint ventures with Treaty 6 nations, the city and province that will in turn support housing, programs and services to nation members.
Edmonton’s director of Aboriginal and Multicultural relations, Mike Chow said the city is supportive of the Papaschase.
“The City does acknowledge the Papaschase First Nation Society as one of the many important stakeholders in Edmonton’s Aboriginal Communities. We continue to have ongoing fruitful discussions with them around issues of concern and importance to their membership.”
Ultimately, Bruneau would like to see an official declaration from the city recognizing the Papaschase.
“But, also the lands that were illegally taken away. There needs to be compensation. And it needs to be declared that Edmonton is still on unceded, Indian land.”
He added that he engaged in a conversation with Mayor Don Iveson just prior to the Truth and Reconcilation event held in Edmonton in March 2014. Mayor Iveson told him the city was “looking into getting them land.” In the meantime, and in the spirit of truth and reconciliation, Bruneau hopes these efforts will be followed through in the near future.
For more information on the Papaschase First Nation head to www.papaschase.ca
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