Ottawa apologizes to Sask. First Nation for its role in experimental colony
The Government of Canada offered a national apology to Peepeekisis Cree Nation on Wednesday for its role in the File Hills Colony Scheme.
The apology is something that was welcomed by Peepeekisis Chief and Council, along with many community members who worked for years, looking to get that national apology and be fairly compensated for the wrongdoings linked to the experimental colony.
“Prior to me, there were 18 Chiefs before me that had major roles in this past claim,” said Peepeekisis Chief Francis Dieter.
“The File Hills Indian Farming Colony was a socially engineered project that contributed to the genocide of Cree people who resided on Peepeekisis reserve.”
The community accepted a $150 million settlement in August 2021.
Although the settlement was reached, the project has left many with unanswered questions about themselves, some grappling with identity issues stemming from the colony.
‘I AM NOT 100 PER CENT POSITIVE WHERE MY FAMILY ORIGINATES FROM’
Sara Poitras is a mother of two, and an elementary school teacher.
Like many with ties to Peepeekisis, she said she feels proud to be from the community, even if her family’s ties may not be easy to track down.
“To my understanding, the best of my knowledge, I believe Poitras come from South Dakota but unfortunately, I am not 100 per cent positive where my family originates from,” Poitras said during Wednesday’s event.
She spoke, along with multiple members of the community, about how she is dealing with her traumas.
Poitras said she hoped to become a Cree teacher as her education career progressed, but said something didn’t feel right about speaking it at times.
It’s another element she said she’ll need to work through on her healing journey.
“It's conflicting because as Indigenous people, we’re so connected to the lands. To be taken from your ancestral lands and to be displaced -- just put somewhere else -- it's just, a loss of connection,” Poitras said.
She and another young Peepeekisis band member, Keegan Montgrand, spoke of their links to identity, as products of the File Hills Colony.
“My family feels the effects … we don’t know if we still have blood relatives from our family’s original nation. Here on Peepeekisis, we are known as placements. As outsiders — even though we were born, and raised on these lands,” Montgrand said.
“We can free of wrongdoings, but we must never forget.”
‘INVASIVE IN NATURE:’ THE APOLOGY
Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous-Crown Relations, spoke at an event in the community on Wednesday morning to acknowledge the wrongs of the past.
He said the government hopes the apology can help the healing process within the community.
“At the time, Canada claimed wrongly that this scheme would enhance agricultural productivity. Now we understand this was an experiment that was invasive in nature, and an experiment in radical social engineering,” said Miller.
“For this, we are deeply sorry. The historic harm caused by the colony scheme goes far beyond the transfer of prime land. It created divisions in the community.”
Peepeekisis Cree Nation was home to the File Hills Colony between 1897 and 1954. Participants in the colony were selected for the experiment after graduating from residential schools and industrial schools.
Colony members were forced to work on a community farm which was located on what is now called Peepeekisis Cree Nation.
They were not permitted to return to their home communities where they had originally lived before attending residential school, where most of their families were still living.
In looking to the future, Miller said the words of Poitras and Montgrand gives him “great hope,” but a lack of belonging was something that “hit home.”
“It is the direct result of a devastating social experiment that occurred on this land. Knowing it gets transmitted from generation to generation — it’s not a myth. It’s a reality. And it’s a lived reality,” Miller said.
“They’re breaking the mould and realizing there is a bright future without sugar coating the reality of what they go through.”
As Peepeekisis takes another step Wednesday within its healing journey, some may look at the national apology as another step in the right direction.
But for some, such as Poitras, grappling with identity uncertainty caused by the experiment — the road to reconciliation may not be as smooth.
“We didn't ask to be put here. We didn't ask to be taken from our land -- we didn't ask to come here. And then, the originals didn't ask for us to come here. Nobody asked for this. We just have to work with what we have now.”
If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll free line at 1-800-721-0066.
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.
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