By Milton Tootoosis
Director of Livelihood and Economic Independence, OTC & Headman, Poundmaker Cree Nation

It is a well-known documented fact that Indigenous peoples around the globe were innovators of sustainability. They were miners, engineers, doctors/healers, farmers and inter-tribal traders. The misnomer that they were heathen savages with no structures, systems or understanding of basic supply and demand principles was created by early settlers on turtle island as a way to conquer and acquire the lands and resources. Modern researchers have uncovered mounds, pyramids, ancient camp sites and medicine wheels that validate that Indigenous peoples were an advanced civilization in comparison to the Europeans at that time.

The numbered treaty negotiations era (late 1800’s) brought tremendous change for our ancestors here on the northern plains and keewatinok (the north). The bison herds had been depleted and starvation was rampant. They were destitute and in a corner. And so, the negotiations began with the inclusion of treaty provisions that included tools to adapt to the new way (agricultural implements, carpentry tools) and promises of a continued economic livelihood, including hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering.

The ink on the Treaty Six document did not even dry and the John A. McDonald government in Ottawa had plans, unbeknownst to the Chiefs, to enact the Indian Act. That was not part of the deal according to the Chiefs. The Pass and Permit System followed to forcefully restrict the movement of Indians and confine them to their reserves. It was a system set up to fail the Indians and to keep them poor.

Nimosom (my grandfather) Adam Tootoosis, an older brother to John B. Tootoosis, agreed to adapt and become a farmer. My late mother shared stories about breaking the land on horse drawn plows.  Adam worked hard to earn a subsistence livelihood. Then he made a breakthrough by acquiring a steam engine tractor which was high tech at that time. But was it a tool which was part of the treaty? Did he have to borrow money to buy it despite the treaty promise to a new livelihood? According to oral history this was one of five tractors allocated to the Saskatchewan region. When he brought the new piece of technology home it was much celebrated. However, after a few years that modern technology was taken away from him by the farming instructor who was accompanied by the RCMP and an Indian Affairs representative.  Adam did not take that lightly and took justice into his own hands by assaulting the farming instructor.  Regardless, sometime later Adam was able to buy another tractor and other modern farming equipment.

Despite the adversity he went on to be a successful farmer. He shared the fruits of his labour by providing sustenance for his own and other families on the Poundmaker reserve.  Nimosom Adam was a prime example of an Indian who was a proud, industrious and kind man. He was a prime example of what success could have been. His dream of economic freedom was restricted due to twentieth century racist colonial policy that prohibited his ability as an Indian to build a sustainable and profitable livelihood.

Those restrictions have since been lifted. New laws, policies and documents like the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Final Report and Call to Action are now opening doors. First Nations people now have the freedom to rebuild their treaty right to an economic livelihood. Some First Nation communities have adopted new strategies to take advantage of economic opportunities from the lands and resources they have at their disposal. Let us learn from them and each other. We are at a crucial time to make greater advancements in order to create new own source revenue, to create wealth, jobs and to improve the quality of life for First Nations people.  Now is the time to reflect on the original spirit and intent of the numbered treaties, to rekindle that spirit of industriousness and self-reliance. If we don’t do it our-selves no one else will. As the saying goes, “some people make things happen” while others ask “what just happened?”

Chief Poundmaker was quoted of saying that “we cannot just sit beside the trial or the grass will grow over and not find our way.” We cannot sit idle anymore and get left further behind.

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