Last ones standing: Michel Band seeks to regain status as a band under Indian Act
First Nation in Alberta was enfranchised in 1958, with members giving up their treaty rights
Ernie Callihoo proudly looks out onto the rolling hills of barley growing on the land that he's farmed for over 50 years. He was born just across the dirt road in a small cabin in 1936, on what was then the Michel First Nation.
Now, the 81-year-old is the only band member left living on the land. It was enfranchised on March 31, 1958.
According to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, before April 17, 1985, a person could apply to give up their Indian status for various reasons, including the right to vote in a federal election. Until 1960, the only way Indians could vote in federal elections was to give up their Indian status through a process called enfranchisement.
"That was a bad thing," Callihoo said.
"I always did think it was the wrong thing to do. I remember my dad fist-fought with other band members because he wanted to keep this land. He was mad at them because they wanted to get rid of the reserve."
Now, Callihoo and other members are launching a new legal fight to be recognized as a band under the Indian Act once again.
The Michel Band, consisting of people of Iroquois and Cree descent, signed Treaty 6 in 1878, settling on a 40-square-mile piece of land on the Sturgeon River northwest of Edmonton.
In the 1950s, the Department of Indian Affairs approached the Michel Band to enfranchise under the guise that it would become a model for other reserves in Canada, says band Coun. Celina Loyer.
"They used Michel as an experiment," said Loyer.
"It was the banner reserve of the agency. The people were doing very well. Their houses were well-kept, they had crops in, owned animals like cattle, pigs, chickens. They were very well-to-do. But the Indian agent was controlling everything they did. Like, if they wanted to go sell a dozen eggs, they had to get a pass. If you weren't agreeing with the Indian agent at the time, he wouldn't give you a pass."
A group of 10 families from the reserve first agreed to enfranchise in 1928 because, according to Loyer, they were blackmailed.
"They didn't want to continue to send their kids to the residential school in St. Albert," said Loyer, whose father, Gilbert Anderson, was chief of Michel in the 1980s. Elders told Loyer they were coerced into enfranchisement.
"They were told if they didn't enfranchise, their kids would have to go to residential school. What kind of choice is that? Either your kids go to this school or you have to enfranchise and give up all of your rights so that your kids can go to the school of your choosing."
'I'm the only one'
Those who chose to enfranchise were given full Canadian status while giving up their treaty rights. Land prospectors lined up at their doorstep and it didn't take long for some members to be convinced to sell for various reasons. Some wanted to assimilate into mainstream culture, said Loyer, while others couldn't afford to pay the municipal land taxes.
The land was often sold at below market value prices, to friends and family members of the Indian agent, she added.
"The land sold for cheap," said Loyer.
The band voted for complete enfranchisement in 1958. That didn't sit well with the Callihoo family. When it went through, they took their parcel of land and didn't sell it off.
Callihoo said hard work in farming and working on the railways kept the land in his name.
"I always wanted this land. I took the land because I wanted the land since I was a kid…. The people [then] weren't educated enough and they didn't have enough information. They didn't know, you know?" he said.
"You look around now … I'm the only one. There's nobody around."
Even though he's still living where the original reserve stood, he's surrounded by farmers and gravel pits owned by corporations that he says have raked in millions of dollars in profits.
"We [Michel] lost out on millions and millions of dollars with the gravel pits and the airport," said Callihoo.
"Before, when we were on the reserve, you weren't allowed to do a lot of stuff. This is why I think a lot [of members voted to enfranchise] too to go out and vote and stuff. You were free. You could go to the bank and get a loan, when before you couldn't get a loan on the reserve."
In 1985, under amendments to the Indian Act as part of Bill C-31, over 750 Michel Band members regained Indian status.
The band established a chief and council shortly thereafter and have been in litigation with the federal government to have the Michel Band once again recognized under the Indian Act.
"We would like recognition as a band and all of the amenities that come with that like education, health, money for a land base and place to operate out of," said Michel Chief Gilbert Goerz.
He doesn't know if it will happen anytime soon, but he's hopeful that the Trudeau government will be more open than previous governments.
"We still are [an Indigenous group], we're not going away, we're going to be here for a while. The people that we represent, they require that recognition and support from the government as well," said Georz, who added that there are more than 1,000 Michel members currently on record, and the list is growing.
The most recent lawsuit was thrown out of Alberta court last fall due to a technicality called the "drop dead rule," he said, which stipulates that cases having no significant activity within three years are dismissed.
According to band member and lawyer Dennis Callihoo, the Michel have been met with roadblocks while treading through the federal court system.
However, Callihoo said the group plans to start a new lawsuit in the fall. He hopes the litigation will help the Michel to be taken seriously so that they can start negotiating with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
"We are very hopeful to start a negotiation process to acquire a self-government agreement with the Government of Canada for the Michel — to act as leverage to get us to that [meeting] table," said Dennis, who added that pursuing the lawsuit boils down to a lack of resources.
But the Michel plan to access the Court Challenges Program, which provides financial assistance for court cases that advance language and equality rights guaranteed under Canada's constitution.
"Going forward it looks very promising. We want to be treated equally as a nation under the Indian Act. Our argument essentially is our treaty rights were never given up or extinguished. We carried them right from treaty to the present," said Dennis Callihoo, referring to the members who regained treaty status under Bill C-31 in 1985.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs say they have "actively engaged with the Michel Band on a roadmap forward."
Loyer said a representative from INAC recently contacted the band to set up a meeting to discuss the next move.
In 2008, the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations recognized the Michel First Nation as a member of Treaty 6 and called upon the Canadian government to restore recognition to its descendants.
And at its recent annual meeting in Regina, the Assembly of First Nations chiefs voted unanimously to support a resolution requesting the federal government recognize the Michel under the Indian Act.
A meeting place and a family legacy
Although the Michel understand that they may never get their land back — and at this point, they are not looking for compensation — they look forward to a day when they can be officially recognized as a band, said Dennis Callihoo.
For now, Ernie Callihoo keeps his home and land open to anyone connected to the Michel to visit and connect to their roots.
"This is definitely a meeting place for a lot of people. Family and people come out of the woodwork and come out for coffee. Anybody who comes here will say they feel like they're home," said Callihoo.
He still gets approached on a regular basis to sell his land, but he refuses. He said he's determined to keep the land as a family legacy.
"I won't sell — money's nothing," he said.
On whether or not he'll live to see the day of the Michel Band's legal restoration, Callihoo said it would be great to see it happen.
"Even though a lot of the old timers aren't around anymore … I would like to see it happen while I'm still around."