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Listening a vital step to resolve land conflicts
May 9, 2008
SASKATOON, Sask.—When Gary LaPlante stands on the crest of Stoney Hill, an historic site about 35 kilometres north of here; he listens to the wind and senses a spiritual connection to all people whose identity is connected to this land.
He said when he and other descendants of the Young Chippewayan Band stand on this land they feel spiritually connected to their ancestors—nomadic people who once hunted buffalo here and considered the knoll a sacred place.
They also recognize that the European settlers and their descendants (mainly Mennonite and Lutheran) who have farmed this rich farmland since the turn of the century and built schools, churches and thriving communities also have a spiritual connection to the land.
“We need dialogue—that is the only way,” said LaPlante.
Listening to people talk about their experiences in a trusting atmosphere is an important step towards understanding and resolving outstanding grievances and injustices, he said.
This understanding, he said, brings about changes in public opinion at the grassroots level and when public opinions change, governments are forced to respond.
Stoney Knoll, now called Stoney Hill, is a broad mound that provides an impressive view of agricultural cropland and river valleys between the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, running from Saskatoon to Prince Albert.
It is situated near the centre of a 78 square kilometre triangular tract of land selected by Chief Young Chippewayan and the Plains Cree Band in exchange for signing Treaty 6 in 1876. The band lost this land in 1897 when the federal government, without consultation or compensation, assigned this land to be part of a larger area reserved for Mennonite settlers.
In August 2006, a celebration marking the 130th anniversary of the signing of Treaty 6 took place on the knoll, adjacent to land owned by grain producers Wilmer and Barb Froese, who are also pastors of the Rosthern Mennonite Church.
This celebration was organized by Chief Ben Weenie with assistance from LaPlante and other descendants of the Young Chippewayan Band, Office of the Treaty Commissioner, representatives from Mennonite and Lutheran churches in the area and Leonard Doell, coordinator of MCC Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal Neighbours program. The Aboriginal Neighbours program is committed to building bridges of understanding between Mennonite and Aboriginal people.
About 130 people participated in the celebration which included a pipe ceremony and signing a memorandum of understanding to live in peace and harmony with each other.
Although very little follow-up has taken place since the 2006 celebration, LaPlante believes the dialogue that started with this celebration will continue. “If we put our minds together, all of us, that is where the strategy will come from,” he said.
Barb and Wilmer Froese share LaPlante’s dream of working together to establish community-driven models of communication that demonstrate how people directly impacted by conflict can work together to bring about just and fair solutions.
Barb said when she saw the teepees on the knoll during the 2006 celebration she recalled the fear she had felt in the 1970s when threats of violence had erupted over the unresolved land claim in their community, creating tension and fear.
“We have to continue to be proactive,” she said, noting the celebration was the first opportunity for her and for many of her neighbours to meet people from the Young Chippewayan Band.
“What is important is that you come into a situation like this with a desire to understand other people and have a heart of compassion” added Wilmer.
LaPlante is a senior policy advisor on issues relating to First Nations. He said a common misconception concerning First Nation land claims is dispossession of land.
“That is not the case,” he said, noting government policies require “a willing seller and a willing buyer.” A process has been established to set compensation for the land that has been lost.
Milton McKay works for the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations in the treaty governance office. More public education, he said, is needed to help everyone understand land development and colonization experiences in Canada.
“The fact that we are still alive today, that we exist in this world, is a massive testimony to the strength and resilience of our people,” he said, noting Aboriginal youth also need to hear more stories of what “life was really like” before and during colonization.