Gestures, truth and action as reconciliation: A response to Premier Pallister's bike ride

As Brian Pallister begins what he calls a "journey of reconciliation," Lisa Forbes pens a letter to the Manitoba premier.

As Brian Pallister begins his 'reconciliation' bike ride, Lisa Forbes offers an open letter to the premier

Premier Brian Pallister stands with Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, and the bike the premier will use to travel 160 kilometres starting on Friday. (CBC)

On June 16, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister begins a 160-kilometre bike ride from the former site of Peguis First Nation in East Selkirk to the community's present site in the north Interlake, to mark the 200th anniversary of the Selkirk Treaty. As the premier begins what he calls a "journey of reconciliation," Lisa Forbes wrote this open letter to the Manitoba premier.

Dear Premier Pallister:

Today is the start of your bike ride to the present-day Peguis First Nation as commemoration of the 200-year-old Selkirk treaty.

I have my own treaty-related symbolic gesture I'd like to share. Last year, for the first time, I collected my treaty payments at Peguis, my mom's birthplace. I received a handshake from a red-uniformed RCMP officer and 29 newly minted $5 bills as annuity payments for each of the years that I have been a member of a Treaty 1 First Nation.

I still have all those crisp fivers and in this, the 150th year of Canada, I want to start putting my $5 bills to good use. In the spirit of treaty, with you as a settler on Treaty 1 land and me as a person of Cree, Métis and Scottish descent living in that same territory, can I buy you breakfast? Not much of one, for five bucks — maybe tea and toast.  

As background to the talk I hope we have, I'll tell you a little-known side to the Selkirk Settler/First Nations relationship — Chief Peguis's truth tells of an unfulfilled promise.

Selkirk Settlers arrived at the St. Peter's Indian Settlement (present-day East Selkirk) in 1817. In his Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857, Vol. 1, Henry Youle Hind writes that Chief Peguis recalls, in a letter to the London Aborigines' Protection Society in 1857: 

Writing about the Selkirk Settlers in 1857, Chief Peguis said, 'For the sake of peace, I, as the representative of my tribe, allowed them to remain on our lands on their promising that we should be well paid for them by a great Chief, who was to follow them.' (Submitted)
"The Silver Chief [Earl of Selkirk] told us he wanted land for his countrymen, who were very poor in their own country. For the sake of peace, I, as the representative of my tribe, allowed them to remain on our lands on their promising that we should be well paid for them by a great Chief, who was to follow them.

"The Silver Chief never returned and either his son or the Hudson Bay Company have ever since paid us annually for our lands only the small quantity of ammunition and tobacco which in the first instance we took only as a preliminary to a final bargain about our lands."

The Selkirk and other European settlers were among the people who formed governments in the decades that followed. Their elected leaders and government agents were responsible for the subjugation and eventual removal of the original First Nations people who lived there.

They did this through the reserve system, shorting the community of its Treaty 1 land entitlements, eventually stealing the community's land and moving the St. Peter's Reserve from East Selkirk to its present location as Peguis First Nation.

That, premier, is why there's distance to cross at all — by bike or otherwise — to visit the present-day community of Ojibway and Cree people of Peguis First Nation.  

After their land was stolen by fraud, and over a period of 30 years from about 1907, the First Nations people of St. Peter's faced sanctions if they did not move to the present-day community, and so they moved. Some of them resisted and were jailed.

'A place that had absolutely nothing'

They moved from their thriving community to a land with poor-quality soil, a place that had absolutely nothing — no high ground free of floodwater, no land ready for farming, no houses, no proximity to jobs, no schools, nor the trade they had enjoyed with settlers in the towns close to their original community.  

My relatives across four generations were some of the Peguis First Nation members who fought a 91-year legal battle with the Government of Canada over land theft. And finally it was won in 1998, long after my relatives' passing, with the terms of an agreement settled in 2010 by the First Nation and Canada.

The Apology has been said, and the money is being paid, but there is present and ongoing fallout from those historic crimes. Let's talk about the reconciliatory acts it will take to repair our broken relationship.

Premier has the power

You, as the premier of Manitoba, oversee justice — you can implement the 25-year-old Aboriginal Justice Inquiry recommendations.

Through your leadership, you can enact laws that require the City of Winnipeg police to meet the AJI guidelines for minimum numbers of Aboriginal police officers and staff. Or change bail rules that force those who are poor and charged with, but not found guilty of, a crime — some with no criminal record — to languish in the Winnipeg Remand Centre, while those with relatives who can afford it get out on bail.

You, as the premier of Manitoba, have the power to change Manitoba's infamous position as the province in Canada with the highest percentage of kids (90 per cent) in our residential-school-disaster-equivalent of a child welfare system who are Indigenous.

You can do that by implementing everything in the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry and put the federal government to task whenever there is something to negotiate.

Tell them Manitoba won't come to the table until the federal government meets its Human Rights Tribunal Order to enact Jordan's Principle and equitably fund education and child welfare for children who live on First Nations.

Those are the kinds of reconciliatory actions we can talk about. It might take more than one sit-down, but that's OK.

I'll pull out the fivers for more breakfasts.

In peace and goodwill,

Lisa Forbes

A Winnipeg citizen and Peguis First Nation member

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Lisa Forbes is a community researcher and facilitator. She is a Peguis First Nation member of Cree, Metis, and Scottish descent. Lisa lives in Winnipeg and grew up not far from St. Peters. She really does want to use her Treaty fivers to start conversations about Treaty relationships.