Why my grandfather dissolved the Michel First Nation and renounced his Indian status
In 1958, Johnny Rodgers led 42 families to give up their Alberta reserve, and their identity
by Colleen Underwood, CBC Calgary
Eighty-one-year-old Ernie Callihoo longs for the time when his old reserve, the Michel First Nation, still existed. Dozens of families used to live and farm the land that once stretched over a hundred square kilometres in size, just northwest of Edmonton.
The band dissolved in 1958, when Ernie was about 20. The reserve was split up and everyone was given a quarter section of land (64 hectares).
Ernie is the only one who still owns his piece and lives on it.
No way would I sell.- Ernie Callihoo
Ernie is among a group of former band members and their families who argue that dissolving the band was the wrong decision. And they blame part of what happened on one of their old neighbours, Johnny Rodgers.
"You know, it always bothers me what happened, but what could you do," says Ernie.
Johnny Rodgers was my grandfather.
I've never really connected to the culture, because the reserve was gone by the time I was born. And my family didn't take part in any cultural practices or traditions.
My mom, Caroline Rodgers, never really talked about her heritage. When I seek answers now, she says she had a conflicted upbringing.
My mom lived in a tiny farmhouse with eight brothers and sisters, along with her parents, Johnny and Clara. They had a mixed farm — both grain and livestock — and they trapped muskrats, rabbits and other wildlife. It was hard work, and the family didn't have much money.
"We survived — that's what we did, we survived, everybody did," says Juanita Rodgers, my aunt.
But she says the hardest aspect of their lives was being under the constant control of the federal government and the Indian agent.
You couldn't even go on a holiday without getting permission to leave the reserve.- Juanita Rodgers
"I am pretty sure [Johnny] even had to get permission to sell his grain, he couldn't just take to a place and sell it. He had to get permission. Everything you did when you were on the reserve, you had to get permission for. And I know that's one of the things my dad didn't like," says Juanita.
When Johnny came back, he found that Indigenous people like himself were denied some of the same benefits given to other veterans.
My mom says her dad always told them there was no future on their reserve.
He wanted his freedom. He wanted to be sole owner of his land. You just felt more suppressed as an Indian, and maybe times have changed since then, which I think they have, but back then it was pretty strict, pretty rigid. - Caroline Rodgers
She says Indigenous people couldn't go to hotels or bars, they couldn't vote, and they were often mistreated — all things which she says weighed heavily on her dad's heart and mind.
He asked the federal government if he could enfranchise — that meant he would give up his treaty rights and Indian status in order to gain the rights and freedoms of other Canadians.
It was a formal process whereby Indigenous people, who met certain criteria, could apply. By enfranchising, he would be given title to his land, the right to vote and to travel freely.
Other band members had already enfranchised back in the 1920s, and even earlier. But when Johnny applied, the government told him he'd have to get the whole Michel band to enfranchise, in order for him to gain his freedom.
Ernie Callihoo's dad, Archie, was worried about having to pay taxes once he lost his status. He also worried about what this change might mean for his children and future generations.
Ernie remembers his father and Johnny fighting.
"Christ, I remember that. But the problem is, then I had to play with the boys, with his family. And I was like, what the hell am I going to do now?" says Ernie.
The federal government appointed a committee to assess whether members of the Michel First Nation would be able to survive on their own, once enfranchised. Johnny Rodgers was on that committee, along with a judge and a civil servant. After a few public meetings, the committee recommended enfranchisement.
Today, some still question the legitimacy of the process because there was never an official vote. There are also some rumours of bribery and coercion — that my grandfather and his henchmen strong-armed people into agreeing to enfranchise.
These rumours were mentioned in a recent public exhibit of the Michel band in St. Albert.
"I don't know if there's anything concrete out there, any documentation to concretely say that that actually happened, or if that's just folklore, or somebody not liking somebody else and spreading a rumour," says Gil.
My mom doesn't believe Johnny would have bullied anyone.
"I know Dad wanted it, but he would never have gone to that," she says.
My mother can see Johnny being persistent. Passionate. Relentless. But she says he wouldn't have threatened anyone.
In the end, Ottawa approved enfranchisement. On March 18, 1958, 42 families became private landowners. Each adult was given the title to a quarter section of land (64 hectares), a few thousand dollars to help start their new lives, and all the rights, freedoms and obligations of other Canadians.
"I can still remember telling my mom, 'Oh great, I'm not native anymore,' and she laughed and said, 'I'm afraid you are, my dear'.... I was 14 or 15, and I wanted to be like everyone else," says Caroline.
She says she doesn't feel that way anymore.
Within a few years, Johnny got sick, sold the land he fought so hard to attain, and moved away. He died in 1968.
I call it sacred land, that's what I call it. I'm the keeper. I don't say I really own it. I just say, I'm here.- Ernie Callihoo
Ernie's daughter Maureen Callihoo says people didn't just give up their status, they gave up part of their identity.
"I hear it over and over again: 'I don't know where I belong.' And a lot of people don't even know who Michel First Nation is," says Maureen.
The government changed the laws in 1985 and reinstated an individual's Indian status if they lost it through enfranchisement. That status could be passed down for two generations. I have it. But I can't pass it on to my children.
Still, Ernie and others would like the federal government to reinstate the band's status, to recreate Michel First Nation. They realize they won't get that same land back. It's now mostly private farms and gravel pits. But they hope the two sides can reach some type of agreement.
As for me, I don't blame my grandfather for pushing so hard to gain his freedom. But I am sad that I didn't get to grow up around people who share my heritage.
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About the Producer
Colleen Underwood has been a reporter with CBC news since 2004. She covers the gamut of stories — from the opioid crisis to pesky wolves eating garbage in Banff National Park. She lives in Calgary with her husband, son and rambunctious golden doodle, Timber. This is her first radio documentary. You can follow her on Twitter @cbccolleen.
This documentary was produced through the The Doc Project Mentorship Program.
It was edited by Alison Cook.