Remembrance Day & One First Nation Veteran’s Tale in Treaty 1 Territory

Originally posted in the Media Co-op (November 11, 2019).

It’s Remembrance Day in Canada, and so rather than talk about how ignorant and racist Don Cherry is, or how the day is typically used by disingenuous politicians and pundits who don’t give a damn about veterans beyond photo ops and lofty rhetoric, and who would rather criminalize the civil disobedience of peace activists than the sale of weapons to rogue states, dictatorships and human rights violators — instead I’d like to talk about some actual veterans of World War I in this country, and how Canada repaid their service.

According the Department of Indian Affairs own records, fully 21% of adult males in the Peguis and St. Peter’s First Nations populations (Treaty 1) enlisted to fight in World War I.   Given the treatment of the “People of Peguis” in the four decades between the signing of Treaty 1 and the outbreak of World War I — including, but not limited to multiple breaches of Treaty 1 and the concerted, but ultimately-successful attempts to steal their original lands and forcibly relocate them to ever more remote “reserve” territory — one might be forgiven for wondering what could possibly motivate these same men to enlist on behalf of a colonial state that had already consistently betrayed them.

Those who survived to return from the so-called “Great War” might have expected to partake in some of the benefits afforded to other veterans.  However, St. Peter’s / Peguis war veterans not only failed to qualify for the same benefits and programs that “ordinary” (read: settler) veterans were afforded, but worse than this, in 1919 the government attempted to expropriate parts of their new reserve at Peguis (along the Fisher River), for part of a soldier resettlement scheme to benefit non-Aboriginal veterans

It is hard to over-emphasize the significance of this discriminatory and colonial treatment.  Less then ten years after the government had begun (in 1907) to dispossess the people of Peguis, by force and fraud, of their original, prime, and developed river-front agricultural lands — lands ostensibly guaranteed to them under the terms of Treaty 1 — and less than ten years after they had forcibly relocated much of the population to a new ‘reserve’ further north, the government now sought to expropriate part of the new territory — in order to give it away as private land plots to Euro-Canadian veterans.  In May 1919, the very month that the Winnipeg General Strike began, St. Peter’s and Peguis war veterans were petitioning government officials to express their opposition to further unilateral land alienations, citing both their recent military service and the still-unresolved status of the fraudulent ‘surrender’ of their original lands along the Red River.

One of the personal stories that stands out for me as particularly poignant on this Remembrance Day is discussed in my M.A. thesis: ‘As She Shall Deem Just:’ Treaty 1 and the Ethnic Cleansing of the St. Peter’s Reserve, 1871-1934 (2009).  It’s the story of one such veteran, a Saulteaux (Anishinaabe) man named Henry Pahkoo, who participated in an organized repatriation movement to reclaim his people’s stolen lands in the early 1930s.  Estimates of the number of people involved range from twenty-five to thirty-five families.   Predictably, the arrival in the summer of 1932 of hundreds of indigenous people returning to lands they had been expelled from caused immediate and widespread consternation among local white settlers, who now considered the land theirs.  They called upon Indian Affairs officials and police to arrest or expel the mostly-Saulteaux movement as “trespassers.”   

But of course colonizers, with their own vested interest in the “bounty and benevolence” of the lands that have been gifted to them — whether it be by homestead ‘grants,’ soldier settlement board (SSB) grants, or by land speculators selling stolen goods — have never been particularly interested in troublesome facts about treaty violations, or the legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of genealogies of title transfer.  It didn’t matter to them, for example, that one of the leaders of this repatriation movement was Naynahkawekonape, or Alex Greyeyes, a former Chief of St. Peter’s, who maintained that the 1907 ‘surrender’ was a fraud, a violation of Treaty 1, and that even by its own standards, the terms of that surrender were never fulfilled. 

The response to the People of Peguis returning to their own lands was to send mounted police.  Media reports in 1932-33 quickly adopted the narrative framework established by Indian Affairs officials, police, court magistrates, and local Town of Selkirk ‘settlers’ and business leaders with their own vested interests — namely, that the indigenous families involved were ‘squatters’ and ‘trespassers’ who needed to be removed with the full force of colonial and criminal law.   

This is exactly what occurred.  Many of the Saulteaux men, who were viewed as leaders or heads of families, were soon brought up on charges of ‘criminal trespass’ in the Selkirk District Police Court.  Court transcripts demonstrate repeatedly that the ‘accused’ did not have any faith that the colonial courts would deliver any semblance of justice — a skepticism more than borne out by the proceedings.  They also suggest that most of the men brought before the magistrate preferred to go to jail than give up the lands of their ancestors.

Henry Pahkoo first appeared before Magistrate H.R. Welsford in the Selkirk Police Court on 13 October 1933.  Pahkoo had volunteered to fight in “His Majesty’s Army” during World War I, and had spent three years on the front lines in France.  But this fact did not afford him even the most minimal respect by the judiciary.  His was the first case heard in a combined docket that included 18 names.  It is clear from the court transcripts that his initial legal counsel, a man named H.M. Hannesson, Esq., was entirely uninterested in Pahkoo’s own perspective that the land in question was his (and his people’s) under Treaty 1 and taken by swindle — a fact that was, not incidentally, already confirmed by the low standards of colonial law in a Royal Commission in 1911. 

In any case, Pahkoo’s trial was deferred and he went through half a dozen lawyers before finally appearing before the magistrate the following summer.  His newest lawyer, one T.C. Greschuk, Esq., had been assigned the case for only two days, and applied for a further continuance due to his evident lack of preparation time.  But the continuance was denied, and Pahkoo’s trial commenced without an informed legal counsel.   The transcript for his trial is approximately 50 pages long, and offers myriad insights into not just the assumptions, paternalistic and condescending attitudes, and under-handed methods of the judiciary, but also into the perspective and sense of humour in the face of injustice of Pahkoo himself. 

Anyone interested in these details can find a more full treatment in Chapter 4 of my thesis ‘As She Shall Deem Just’ (2009).  But it is clear from the transcript that Pahkoo was given little respect or consideration, and that Magistrate Welsford himself blatantly lied about the facts of the reports of two distinct Royal Commissions related to St. Peter’s lands, in order to convict a war veteran who the judge and prosecuting attorney both considered to be ‘hostile’ and ‘recalcitrant.’ 

Pahkoo refused to be cowed.  When the judge insisted that he acknowledge his ‘wrongdoing,’ Pahkoo refused.  He said: “I am not trespassing because the ground is mine.”  He said the land was never surrendered, it was “set aside for me and the rest of the Indians.”  When he was asked to address the “charges” that he had “no permit” to cut hay on the land in question, he said not only did he not need a permit, but he defiantly and proudly vowed to cut more. 

The fact of the matter is this: Henry Pahkoo was the only one in the court room that day who understood he was defending the property rights (individual and collective) of the rightful owners of the land.  The judge evidently knew that the 1911 Royal Commission had declared the 1907 ‘surrender’ illegal and therefore void.  But magistrate Welsford pretended otherwise, in order to facilitate Pahkoo’s and other defendants’ conviction, and remove Saulteaux families from lands now claimed by white settlers.  

The case of Henry Pahkoo, just one of some 4,000 indigenous people who fought in World War I, tells us something of the nature of the settler-colonialism in Canada.  At Treaty 1, the Queen’s representatives led by Lieutenant-Governor Archibald, promised to deal with settler encroachment upon indigenous reserve lands “as She shall deem just,” ostensibly in order to ensure that these lands would be protected in perpetuity.  Almost 60 years later, the Confederation Jubilee report from Indian Affairs referred to what it called the “traditional loyalty of the Indians to the British Crown,” proudly noted the sacrifices of First Nations in the “Great War,” and insisted that “Indians have reason to be grateful to the Canadian Government for the benefits and consideration that they have received.”  The lies told to convict Henry Pahkoo — not to mention the theft of the entire St. Peter’s territory and the betrayal of the People of Peguis — do indeed reveal a great deal about the “benefits and consideration” afforded the original peoples of this country.      

Parent, activist, researcher, amateur (and sometimes professional) historian, sci-fi/fantasy and nerd culture enthusiast, wilderness survival wannabe, former punk, red wine anarchist.

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