Network of Sask. farmers, ranchers open land to Indigenous people to practise treaty rights

Saskatchewan farmers and ranchers are placing signs on their property indicating that First Nations people in the province can practise their treaty rights to hunting, gathering and ceremonies in the area.

'We're so used to being persecuted for being on somebody's land,' says Fishing Lake First Nation hunter

Saskatchewan Treaty Commissioner Mary Culbertson, left, and subsistence hunter Brad Desjarlais, with farmers Mary Smillie and Ian McCreary, right. Dozens of people gathered on the farm Thursday to usher in the new land-sharing network. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

Farmers, ranchers and Indigenous people circled around Mary Smillie and her husband, Ian McCreary, as the two farmers erected a sign on their property, opening it to Indigenous land users. 

Their grain and livestock farm near Bladworth, south of Saskatoon, is the first in Saskatchewan to post a sign announcing the land is open to Indigenous people practising their treaty rights.

It's a step toward honouring treaty land rights as part of the Treaty Land Sharing Network, which provides a safe space for Indigenous people to use the land for their own practices. 

"We really need to honour the intent of treaty, which was sharing of land," said Smillie, a member of the co-ordinating committee for the network of farmers, ranchers and other landholders who are working together to ensure treaties are observed.

"We shouldn't need these signs — it's unfortunate that we do. So if the signs become unnecessary, that's what we're hoping for."

Prior to erecting the first sign for the land-sharing network, people engaged in a pipe ceremony and talking circles. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

For now, the signs will be a beacon to Indigenous people that the land is available for hunting, gathering plants and medicine, ceremonies and other treaty practices. 

About 14 landowners have joined the network, and in total 37 signs were distributed, Smillie said. 

Joel Mowchenko is another farmer opening his land. It's been in his family for a century, he says, but he has recently learned a lot about the history of the land from Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers. 

But more than that, it's honouring a historical agreement with Indigenous people. 

"This is not us being overly generous or altruistic or anything like that. This is us saying First Nations people have treaty rights to access the land and to benefit from the resources on the land," Mowchenko said.

"And we're just wanting to offer a safe space where they can exercise their treaty rights."

Safe access to land

Mary Culbertson, Saskatchewan's treaty commissioner, says the network is the first of its kind in the province. She added she'll be taking a sign to post on her own farm.

Culbertson says conversations about the network started after the death of Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man from Saskatchewan who was fatally shot by a Saskatchewan farmer in 2016. Gerald Stanley was found not-guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter in Boushie's death.

She says that seeing the new land-sharing signs provides hope that "we're not living in a province of entirely racist people and misogyny."

While Culbertson spoke, she wiped subtle tears from her eyes. 

"Our First Nations people, our elders, our Indigenous people, since time immemorial, lived off this land to feed themselves, to heal themselves," she said. 

Saskatchewan Treaty Commissioner Mary Culbertson, left, will be taking a sign of her own to post on her farm. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

Brad Desjarlais is an Anishinaabe man from the Fishing Lake First Nation who hunts to put food on the table. He said he was happily "dumbfounded" and "amazed" by the network.

"We're so used to being persecuted for being on somebody's land. Now we're actually being asked that we can go on the land and complete our gathering food and medicine," he said. 

"I'm going to hope that my kids and their kids, they can experience the benefits of this in the future," Desjarlais said. "Once we see these signs … we know we can practise our rights without persecution."