'If this land is gone, then it's gone': band member calls for vote on $127M land settlement

Cecile Moosomin said her intent is not to spur division within her community, and is approaching the situation from a place of “peace and reconciliation.”

Cecile Moosomin says members should have their voices heard in the historic agreement

Cecile Moosomin wants to see a referendum held within the Mosquito Grizzly Bear's Head Lean Man First Nation to determine whether or not leadership will go ahead with a land settlement that would see the First Nation receive $127 million or, instead, pursue the land itself. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

Cecile Joan Moosomin walks across the land her ancestors have walked across for centuries. For Moosomin and her family the land is precious — it's life.

Coming to a clearing in the woods, her partner Gale and her daughter Angel-Sky listen intently as she reads about the history of the land and the hangings that took place in the North Battleford area in 1885, and talks about what that history means for her.

Now, as a member of the Mosquito Grizzly Bear's Head Lean Man First Nation, she's wondering what kind of history she and her band will write in the years to come. 

The band's leadership has just ratified a land-settlement claim over a century-old breach by the federal government involving 5,800 hectares and worth $127 million — but now, the 40-year-old grandmother is wondering if it was worth it.

"If this land is gone, then it's gone. We can't get it back," she said.

Calls for a referendum

Cecile Moosomin and her daughter Angel-Sky near the Battlefords on Feb. 25, 2021. Moosomin, who says land is life to her and her family, says she's trying to start a dialouge with band leadership to hold a referendum on a $127-million land settlement reached earlier this year, as she wants to ensure the land preserved for future generations like her daughter. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

Moosomin stressed her intent is not to spur division within her community, and she is approaching the situation from a place of "peace and reconciliation." She now wants to see a referendum, giving each band member a chance to have a say in the decision, which she says will affect the bands for generations to come.

"Everybody should have had an equal opinion about where this settlement was coming from exactly," she said. "Not just consultation with only certain groups of people — we're all people — our kids growing up, we should be informed."

Cecile feels the land settlement, which was announced and published earlier this year, is a "band-aid" solution to a complex violation of the treaties that needs to be properly justified, noting she feels the current settlement does not go far enough.

She says with land, people can teach future generations to become self-sufficient, leading to more stable and long-term growth.

"Our children, the ones in the future, what are they going to think about $127 million," she asked. "That's going to go away. It's not about the money. We just want something good for our people."

Decision reached but work not over: Chief

Chief Tanya Aguilar-Antiman, who was elected to the Mosquito Grizzly Bear's Head Lean Man council in 2019, said in an interview that the aim of leadership is to be as transparent as possible with its members around the settlement.

She acknowledged there should have been a referendum held among membership in 2012 when then leadership were in the early stages of bringing forward the claim, but says she does not know why it did not take place, noting that leadership had signed a trust agreement, which usually lays out the specifics of a claim, on behalf of the bands was "never, ever shared with our people.

"What normally would have happened is, yes, absolutely, there would have been a community referendum, there would have been some dialogue and some sharing of information, however that never happened," she said.

I've always said as a leader, as the chief, I will not fight my people."- Chief Tanya Aguilar-Antiman

Aguilar-Antiman explained band leadership was only made aware of the trust agreement in November, causing leadership to wonder why a community-wide vote never took place. 

She also noted while the tribunal has ruled on the matter, community leaders are still looking at exploring amendments to the trust detailed by past leadership, which includes "amendments of how we can engage and involve our membership."

Chief Tanya Aguilar-Antiman says there should have been a referendum held in 2012, but is not sure why leadership at the time did not take the steps to hold one. However, she says the current aim of leadership is to be transparent and accountable to its members, noting they'd be willing to explore the possibility of a referendum. (Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs)

She stressed while she cannot explain "why former leaders in 2012 did what they did without telling the people," but says the leaders of today, while ready to consult with community elders, will operate in an open and straightforward manner, even as they have to make some tough and timely decisions. 

"Moving forward, it's 2021 and as leaders of today, that's something we want to continue to do, is to be transparent, be accountable to our members and work with our people," she said. "I've always said as a leader, as the chief, I will not fight my people." 

She noted the band is actually in the process of appealing portions of the decision, noting band leadership weren't satisfied with all of the tribunal's finding and she says that work continues.

For her, she said the option of a referendum is something they'd be willing to explore, as they want to try and set a good example for the generations to come, but noted elder voices in the community must be considered and heard, as they were instrumental in making the land claim a reality.

"It's the little ones that we're molding," she said. "To become stronger and better leaders than what we are today." 

Moosomin said she feels the chief's willingness to have a discussion about the land settlement as it proceeds is "really wonderful," calling it a communication breakthrough between band members and their leadership.

Officials from the specific claims tribunal said it has to decline comment due to the fact tribunals and courts do not speak to decisions or matters proceeding before them, but confirmed the matter is now before the Federal Court of Appeal.