By Mervin Brass

A tear trickles down Perry Bellegarde’s left cheek as he recalls the moment when the late Pauline Pelly, a Treaty 4 Elder, congratulated him for his work on the Treaty 4 Grounds land claim in the Town of Fort Qu’Appelle.

“When we finally got it ratified, the Chiefs ratified it, the Crown ratified it, and it finally became a reserve grounds again,” recalls the Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. “She grabbed me, she’s like my mom, grandma, she gave me a big hug, ‘you did it my boy, you did it for all of us.’”

The memory is more than 20-years old and remains the highlight in Bellegarde’s political career. “That always gets to me, every time I think of those old people, I don’t know why I get emotional, especially Pauline, she just made me cry that day.”

The day of celebration was a longtime coming for the Elders of Treaty 4 who knew the government tried to erase the memory of where the treaty was negotiated.

Burial grounds

In 1985, the Town of Fort Qu’Appelle had plans to build condominiums behind the RCMP barracks. During the excavation, skeletal remains were found and everything was put on hold. Bellegarde says they found out more than 30 First Nation people were buried on that site.

“A monument was put up there in recognition and honour of the First Nation people that lay buried there,” says Bellegarde. “When we brought our Elders together, they joked, we know there’s burial grounds here but then they start telling us the whole town was on a reserve.”

That was the first time young leaders, like Bellegarde, were told by Elders about the missing reserve land. “They started joking, what are you guys doing to get it back,” Bellegarde recalls distinctly. “All the old people, James Ironeagle, Willie Peigan, Alfred Manitopyis, Emile Piapot, Donald Bigknife. I can go from every reserve, Gordon Oakes, Johnny Oakes, old Starblanket.”

Map of 1882

Bellegarde says they worked closely with about 40 to 50 Elders to get the land back.

“I remember that the elders would talk about it but we weren’t sure what they were talking about,” says Blair Stonechild, Professor of Indigenous Studies with the First Nations University of Canada. “We thought they were maybe pulling our leg. Sure enough, we started digging around in the archives and lo and behold, came across a map that went back to 1882 that showed the treaty ground.”

“It showed the Treaty Grounds reserve on one side and the Hudson Bay reserve on the other side,” says Bellegarde. “And if you know the town of Fort Qu’Appelle, there’s a street called, Boundary Avenue, it’s a fitting name.”

During the 1874 Treaty 4 negotiations, the First Nations chiefs and their negotiators argued with the government representatives over the grounds that the Hudson Bay Company had, and whether or not they had sold the land to the government from under the feet of the First Nations people.

“Interestingly enough, out of that came the treaty ground. The chiefs basically said if the Hudson’s Bay Company can have that land, why can’t we have our land right for the treaty and so they were given 100 acres for each band, 13 bands, 1300 acres which is the Treaty 4 ground,” says Stonechild.
He also noted that Treaty 4 is the only ground in Canada given as part of the treaty negotiation process.

“After the 1885 uprising, the government went around and collected all the maps of the treaty grounds and destroyed them. First Nations were confined to reserves, and of course, the town of Fort Qu’Appelle wanted to expand. The local Member of Parliament and these guys silently had these things confiscated and they slowly erased the memory of the Treaty 4 ground,” said Stonechild.

By 1894 Indian Affairs declared the Treaty Ground was no longer being used for its intended purpose and transferred the land to the Department of the Interior. According to the map the land from the Credit Union east to the shores of Mission Lake and all the way from the valleys is part of the Treaty Grounds reserve.

As their research intensified, Bellegarde was directed to call a meeting.

Treaty 4 Gathering 

“We began to bring together the first ever Treaty 4 Chiefs Gathering,” says Bellegarde. “The Elders said, ‘even though there’s only 13 Chief here, even though there’s only 1,300 acres here, they’re ceremonial grounds. If you are going to try claim that land back for Treaty 4, don’t just do it for 13, do it on behalf of all the Treaty 4 Chiefs.’”

Bellegarde says all 34 Chiefs were brought together for the first ever gathering in 1986. After years of gathering evidence for the land claim, getting rejected numerous times, the Chiefs never gave up and continued to gather every September. Finally around 1991, the government accepted the land claim for the Treaty Grounds Reserve. Negotiations began on a compensation package. The money from the settlement was used to purchase the land back from the people who held the title.

“I didn’t agree with that but that was the process,” says Bellegarde. “So we had to approach the people who had the fee simple title to that land and offer them a price to purchase it.”

Bellegarde says he is humbled to have had the Elders from Treaty 4 share the oral history with him. “They were the grandchildren of Kakishiway, the grandchildren of Black Bear, Pasqua, Daystar and Kawacatoose,” says Bellegarde. “And to have those old people sit around and share their teachings is the biggest education I ever received. It is very humbling and honouring.”



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