Skip to main content

Fox Lake's promised land

For decades, the northern Manitoba Cree Nation has fought for land it is owed under treaty

Conway Arthurson, a negotiator for Fox Lake Cree Nation, stands in front of traditional lands flooded as a result of hydro dam development. Walther Bernal/CBC

Conway Arthurson stands before a monument listing the names of more than a hundred late Fox Lake Cree Nation members, running his fingers over the cold letters and recalling those he knew.

They are community members who died between 1966 — the year Manitoba Hydro started building its first dam in the traditional territory of the Fox Lake Cree Nation in the province’s northeast — and 2004, the year Hydro and the provincial government settled with the community for damage those developments caused.

The monument “commemorates the undying spirit of the Fox Lake Cree and honours the memory of our members who did not live to see this day,” it reads.

“My mother’s on here, my grandfather’s on here, my grandmother’s on here, my uncles are on here,” said Arthurson.

He describes those listed as “all the people that we lost” during a struggle to claim the First Nations’ rights that has dragged on for so long, they died before seeing justice.

It’s the struggle — now spanning more than three-quarters of a century — to get legal title to land the federal government still owes Fox Lake.

Arthurson stands in front of a monument in Gillam, Man., which lists the names of Fox Lake Cree Nation members who died before Manitoba Hydro and the province settled with the community. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

“Reconciliation is our land, getting our land back,” said Fox Lake Chief Morris Beardy.

“We’ve been here since time immemorial and we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to be here for time immemorial for generations to come.”

The traditional lands of Fox Lake Cree Nation — about 250 kilometres northeast of the city of Thompson — include the lower Nelson River, which is the area where the present town of Gillam is located.

The First Nation traces its occupation of the area through its ancestors to before European contact in the 1600s.

Stewart Hill, a senior research and policy analyst at Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak — which represents First Nations in the province’s north — mapped the movement of the Swampy Cree while studying at the University of Manitoba, and later as a researcher for Fox Lake.

Hill’s research helped ground Fox Lake’s negotiations with Manitoba Hydro for the First Nation’s inclusion in the 2009 Joint Keeyask Development Agreement, which granted Fox Lake and three other First Nations 25 per cent ownership of Manitoba Hydro’s latest dam, the Keeyask generating station.

Fox Lake Cree Nation Chief Morris Beardy ties a ribbon on a tree in his community's traditional territory on Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. (Andrew Wildes/CBC)

Fox Lake says in 1947, when it was recognized by the federal government as an independent community, the government promised reserve land in Gillam, where Fox Lake members lived.

Just two years later, however, the Manitoba Hydro Electric Board — one of the entities that would later become the Crown corporation Manitoba Hydro — was created. The land around the Nelson River was soon identified as a prime candidate for hydro generating stations.

ADVERTISEMENT

Over 24 years, from 1966 to 1990, Manitoba Hydro built three dams along the lower Nelson River — the Kettle, Long Spruce and Limestone generating stations.

Overnight, vast swaths of land the Fox Lake people had lived on and used for hunting and trapping for generations were flooded, as Hydro reshaped the course of the Nelson River for maximum power.

Fox Lake Elder Franklin Arthurson — Conway’s father — testified about the impact at the 1999 Interchurch Inquiry into Northern Hydro Development in Winnipeg.

“I was there when they burnt the houses. I was there when they bulldozed the houses,” he told the inquiry, which was convened to look into the impact of Manitoba Hydro developments on northern Cree communities by the Manitoba Aboriginal Rights Coalition — a body made up of leaders from several Christian denominations, focused on Indigenous rights issues.

“I was there when they [Fox Lake Cree] were refused land to live on, and they were classified as squatters in their own homeland,” Franklin Arthurson told the inquiry.

“The women were abused. I seen it.”

An influx of strangers came too — roughly 4,000 workers at one point, mainly men, moved into the area to work on the dams.

For decades, Fox Lake Cree Nation tried to call attention to allegations of historical sexual abuse of women in their community by Hydro workers.

In August 2018, a report by the Manitoba Clean Environment Commission finally brought the issue into the spotlight, leading Manitoba’s sustainable development minister at the time, Rochelle Squires, to refer the report to the RCMP for investigation.

The waters of the Nelson River rush through the gates of the Long Spruce Generating Station in Gillam. Over 24 years, Manitoba Hydro built three dams along the lower Nelson River. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Since the dams were built, Fox Lake members have struggled as people without land.

The community has about 1,300 band members. About 200 of them live in Bird, a roughly 40-hectare (98-acre) community Fox Lake received in 1985 — one of the First Nation’s first major victories in its quest for land.

Another 300 members live in Gillam, on and off pockets of reserve land there the community received in 2009.

The rest are scattered across the province, in communities like Thompson, Churchill, and Winnipeg.

Forgive or forfeit

Twenty-five years ago, the federal government agreed in principle that Fox Lake Cree Nation was entitled to at least 10,680 hectares (26,391 acres) of reserve land within Manitoba.

That amount was calculated based on a formula set out in Treaty 5, one of the numbered treaties signed by the government of Canada with 58 First Nations in Manitoba between 1871 and 1910.

In the 1990s, a group of 21 First Nations that had not received all the land they were entitled to under the treaties came together to negotiate with the government of Canada and the province of Manitoba.

The negotiations led to the 1997 Manitoba Treaty Land Entitlement Framework Agreement. Six of the 21 First Nations involved have yet to ratify agreements under that framework, including Fox Lake.

That agreement guaranteed Fox Lake 26,391 acres of reserve land, but demanded that Fox Lake and the other First Nations sign an indemnity clause forgiving Canada of all wrongdoing connected to the treaty land entitlements.

ADVERTISEMENT

Conway Arthurson, who was part of the negotiating team, said while the amount of land proposed was fine, the community couldn’t simply overlook the impacts of hydro development, including the sexual and physical abuse many community members said they endured.

Negotiators also had to consider graves dug up without ceremony to make room for hydro buildings, and the loss of Cree language and other aspects of Fox Lake’s culture as the landless population was scattered across Manitoba.

The indemnity also demanded the community forget the significant social impacts that were a direct result of not being granted land back in 1947, long before Manitoba Hydro swept in, said Arthurson.

The Nelson River in Gillam is the lifeblood of the traditional territory of the Fox Lake Cree Nation. (Justin Deely/CBC)

“If we [had] a reserve in Gillam when we requested it in the ‘40s, in the ‘50s and even up until the ‘60s, we might have had some kind of protection,” he said.

“We might have been able to charge people for trespassing. We might have been able to have a safe haven for our band members to call home.”

The final report of the 1999 Interchurch Inquiry into Northern Hydro Development said the federal government was wrong to demand Fox Lake agree to the indemnity in order to get land the community was already entitled to.

“Reserve land should be granted without the requirement of any release or indemnities on the part of Fox Lake First Nation, other than the requirements outlined in Treaty 5,” the report recommended.

Yet today, Fox Lake Cree Nation has only 1,741 hectares (4,302 acres) of reserve land, Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs spokesperson Randy Legault-Rankin confirmed in an emailed statement.

Present negotiations

In 2019, Fox Lake decided to negotiate with the federal government itself for the outstanding land under the federal government’s specific claims process, which requires several stages, according to the federal Crown-Indigenous relations department.

First, there are the compensation negotiations that are now taking place.

Once a settlement agreement is reached by negotiators, Fox Lake’s community members will vote on it.

Legault-Rankin said the negotiations “are progressing well with both parties working toward a mutually acceptable settlement agreement as quickly as possible.”

The federal government’s specific claims process provides a time limit of about six years for a claim to be settled once it’s been filed: the department has three years to assess it, and another three years to negotiate it if it’s accepted.

However, there are signs to suggest Fox Lake still has a long way to go. After the First Nation and the federal government reach a claim settlement, Fox Lake still must get land — either by buying it with the compensation they receive through their negotiation, or by having the province of Manitoba transfer land it owns.

Finally, the First Nation must apply under Canada’s four-stage additions to reserve process, in order for Canada to approve the land as a reserve.

Chris Henderson, executive director of the Treaty Land Entitlement Committee, which represents the First Nations communities that signed the Manitoba Framework Agreement, says as difficult and drawn-out as the negotiations process may be, that final step — getting Canada to approve land as reserve — is even more daunting.

“There are numerous obstacles that are thrown at the First Nation to resolve and to overcome, and that contributes to the frustration,” Henderson said in an interview.

The First Nations communities that signed the Manitoba Framework Agreement 25 years ago sued the government of Canada earlier this year, saying they’ve received only about half of the roughly 405,000 hectares of promised reserve land.

An aerial view, circa 1962, of RCAF Station Bird, a radar station that closed in 1964. Fox Lake has repeatedly expressed interest in the land, but no deliberate steps are being taken to fully decommission the base, Arthurson says. (Submitted by the Manitoba Historical Society)
A July 2017 photo shows an aerial view of the former RCAF Station Bird, with the sites of buildings at left and the runway at right. (Submitted by the Manitoba Historical Society)

One obstacle Fox Lake has been calling on the federal government to address has to do with a plot of land adjoining the First Nation’s reserve in Bird.

Fox Lake wants to expand to that plot, but has been told it can’t become a reserve due to potential liability issues for the federal government.

Station Bird, a Cold War Royal Canadian Air Force radar station, was set up in the 1950s near the CN Rail station in Bird.

The radar station closed in 1964, but some concrete structures and roads are still there.

Arthurson, who is part of the current Fox Lake team negotiating with the federal government, says no deliberate steps are being taken to fully decommission the base, despite Fox Lake’s repeated expression of interest in having the land.

Fox Lake also faces literal obstacles in the dams on the river, the converter stations on land, the kilometres of hydro poles and power lines through the boreal forest and flooded land, all of which limit the space available.

For community members like Raymond Anderson, it means going further to hunt, fish and trap each year.

“It’s not all gone, but pretty much of my childhood is gone,” said Anderson, who works full time for Manitoba Hydro.

He takes a week each year to hunt wild meat like moose for his community.

He recalled driving to what was once his favourite hunting spot, Looking Back Creek, and not being able to find it because it was covered with water.

“I couldn’t even recognize my spot, and I hunted there for 10 years,” Anderson said.

Raymond Anderson says because of the effects of hydro development, he has to go further to hunt, fish and trap each year. (Andrew Wildes/CBC)

Vicky Cole, director of Indigenous and Community relations at Manitoba Hydro, says that illustrates “one of the challenges of some of our earlier developments.”

“They were built without any input from local communities and local members, and so they were built to maximize power potential, and with that comes impact,” she said.

“The reality is that once some of these developments are built, it’s very hard to reverse back in time.”

Hydro has been working over the last four decades to figure out how to better work with communities to address that impact, said Cole.

For example, it sponsors a committee focused on improving the sturgeon population in the Nelson River, and provides water patrols to help people safely navigate the high water.

There’s also a debris management program and a safe ice trail program “to help users get out on the land,” she said.

Reconciliation and support

Despite the challenges, Fox Lake’s leadership says they feel supported by Hydro and the Town of Gillam in efforts to get the community’s reserve land.

Cole says Hydro is also helping Fox Lake identify what land may be available.

“We’ve spent time with them undertaking land-use studies to understand where there is … land that could potentially be turned into reserve land or used for purposes that are really important to Fox Lake,” Cole said.

Fox Lake also has a gaming centre — directly across from the monument to the late community members — a business venture the First Nation accomplished with the co-operation of Hydro and the Town of Gillam.

Chief Beardy, left, talks with Gillam Mayor Dwayne Foreman, right, at Fox Lake’s cultural camp on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. (Andrew Wildes/CBC)

Fox Lake also recently received a parcel of land just outside Gillam, which Mayor Dwayne Foreman says the town is helping Fox Lake develop.

“It’s an exciting time for town,” said Foreman.

“We’re doing all we can to assist in getting the water and sewer requirements that they need.”

But Foreman said there are limits to what the town can do, and real reconciliation on the land matter will need all levels of government to pitch in.

“I will do my part within our community, but it’s larger than Gillam, it’s larger than Fox Lake,” said Foreman.

“It’s all of Canada that was affected by this, and this is something that our federal government needs to sit down and discuss.”

Time of the essence

Despite the time it’s already taken, Fox Lake Cree Nation remains committed to getting the land it’s due.

“I’ve always taught people ‘don’t give up the fight,’” said Anderson.

“At one point I just sort of let it go, but you gotta just keep trying.… Keep trying to get that land back.”

WATCH | Fox Lake Cree Nation’s fight for land:

Looking at the names on the monument, Arthurson says Fox Lake’s leadership is eager to avoid seeing more people die before they can realize the fruit of their efforts.

“Time is of the essence, because a lot of our elders are dying off that were around back then, and we want some of them to experience another life that they should have had,” he said.

“We want to be able to show the elders, before their time is left on this Earth … that we are making progress. We are getting reserve land in Gillam.”

Arthurson says he’s asked the federal government to commit to spending time at the table.

He’s stressed the importance of urgency with negotiators for the federal government at every level, and to Marc Miller, the federal minister of Crown–Indigenous Relations.

“We put Canada on notice that we need to have this agreement negotiated within three to five years,” said Arthurson.

Without that commitment, Arthurson worries Fox Lake may continue to wander through a wilderness of meetings filled with agreements, commitments, elegant land acknowledgments and hundreds of pages of legal documents — and arrive nowhere closer to its goal.

“Some of these negotiations take 50, 60 years, and we don’t have that kind of time.”

Fishermen from Fox Lake Cree Nation drive a boat on the Nelson River. The river is the lifeblood of their traditional territory. (Justin Deeley/CBC)
CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices | About CBC News
Corrections and clarifications | Submit a news tip
About the Author