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Experiment gone wrong in Saskatchewan

Article Origin


Stephen LaRose, Sage Writer, File Hills







Page 9

Toward the end of Evelyn Poitras' video, one of the Elders begins to break down and cry. He says he is one of the last of his people that knows the old songs, the old stories of a way of life that existed in the days before the Indian agent, before Indian people lost their land, their rights. He fears that when he dies, those stories and songs and memories will die with him.

Poitras, who produced, wrote and directed the video, has spent the last two years of her life on the work. The hour-long documentary called the File Hills Indian Colony tells the story of how hundreds of First Nations people lived through a Canadian government-administered social experiment on the Peepeekisis reserve at the turn of the century. She has included the information gathered on an interactive compact disc now available for students at the band's school.

From the turn of the century to the early 1930s, residential school graduates from Lebret, File Hills, and other such institutions, came to work on a giant farm on the Peepeekisis reserve, a pet project of the Department of Indian Affairs. This model project's supporters, including the Indian agent of the time, William Morris Graham, saw the colony as a way to complete the job the residential school system had started, the assimilation of First Nations people into settler society.

But the colony's true legacy, said Poitras, is the hundreds of lives torn apart by the experiment. Graham's dream became a nightmare for the people forced to work the farm.

"The File Hills Colony was looked upon by Graham and the federal government as a way to 'solve' the Indian problem by turning the Indian people into white people," said Poitras, an independent film producer in Regina and a member of Peepeekisis First Nation. "And one way you do that is to take away what is 'Indian' about them."

"One of the Elders interviewed for the video said the residential schools were to take away what is Indian about the children. That's kind of what the colony did, in a more extreme way here than in any other Indian community in Canada."

Graham worked in Saskatchewan from the late 1890s to the early 1930s, and saw the colony as a way to make Indian people conform to the culture of the immigrant people who came to Saskatchewan after the treaties were negotiated, including Treaty 4 signed in 1874.

Poitras said Graham fanatically pursued his dream of assimilating Aboriginal people in the name of building a new Western Canada.

"At the turn of the century, Graham came to the File Hills First Nations. He had this idea of starting this farm colony. He believed that when Indian people were sent to the residential schools they received an education, but when they returned to the communities they would just fall back into their old, traditional ways.

"One of the ideas he had was that he would [isolate] them on the Peepeekisis reserve. There was a lot of land here that the Department of Indian Affairs thought wasn't being used. Most of the band at the time was made up of women and children, after the sicknesses and hardships our people went through."

The residential school graduates came from a variety of the Native communities of the area. They built barns, tended cattle, grew crops, and became-at least on the outside-the model of Western Canadian farming. But their success came with a price. The Indian farmers were strictly controlled by Graham, said Poitras.

"He would oversee what they did, in any part of their life," including who they spoke to, what they did on the farm and what they did in the spare time they had.

"They weren't supposed to speak their language, for one thing," she said.

They took care of their homes and the farm and practiced brass band music in the evenings rather than their traditional powwow music.

"The spiritual life was strictly controlled. At one time it was against the law to practice their traditional ceremonies, and Graham was very fanatical about people having anything to do with their traditios, their language, customs, traditional dress, anything," explained Poitras.

The Indians could grow crops, thresh their grain, and raise cattle, but they weren't allowed to sell what they grew or to butcher their cattle for their own food. Graham was the chief administrator, the chief law-enforcement official, the judge and the jury. Because of the Indian Act, Indians weren't able to appeal the agent's decision on any subject, no matter how trivial or how a decision would affect them.

The Indian colony was as productive, if not more productive, than most farms in the Balcarres district of the time.

"Because they were shown to be successful, they were seen as a model Indian community," she said.

The farm's fortune declined in the late 1920s, thanks to changing political and meteorological winds. Starting in 1929, a series of droughts struck southern Saskatchewan, destroying much of the agricultural economy.

As well, the late 1920s saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations in rural Saskatchewan. Whether it was that influence or a fear of competition in the farming marketplace, hundreds of non-Aboriginal residents signed petitions demanding the federal government stop providing resources to the File Hills Indian Colony.

By 1935, the experiment was over. But the people who worked on the farm remained on Peepeekisis, sparking a debate over band membership that reached the courts two decades later.

The judge decided that everyone who lived and worked on the farm were band members, "but it's still something we're dealing with today," Poitras said. Until the court case, the federal government refused to increase funding or grants to the Peepeekisis band despite the added population.

In addition, the debate and subsequent court battle split the Peepeekisis community, she said.

"We're still a community here that doesn't have adequate resources to support our total membership."

The video describes what happened, not only to Graham, but the peole and society of Peepeekisis because of the project. A CD-ROM contains photographs of the farm and its residents, as well as interviews and texts of government documents concerning the File Hills Indian Colony.