Farmers embrace treaty land sharing process

Mary Culbertson, treaty commissioner of Saskatchewan, left, helps install the first sign for the TreatyLand Sharing Network, along with Brad Desjarlais, Mary Smillie and Ian McCreary. | William DeKay photo

Network aims to foster understanding between producers and Indigenous people by welcoming them to use farmland

A seed of hope was planted on a small mixed farm near Bladworth, Sask., earlier this month as the first sign for the Treaty Land Sharing Network was unveiled.

Farmers, ranchers and Indigenous land users gathered at the McCreary family farm to witness the launch of a grassroots movement dedicated to share land as treaties intended and to welcome Indigenous people on farmland.

“We recognize the treaties are agreements to share land, not land surrender as many of us were taught,” said Mary Smillie, who farms with her husband, Ian McCreary, within sight of Bladworth’s last standing wooden grain elevator.

“We believe that welcoming Indigenous land users to gather plants and medicine, to hunt and hold ceremony on the land that we farm is a small but critical step toward upholding our responsibilities as treaty people.”

Land privatization, trespassing legislation and racism make it more difficult for Indigenous people to access land, she added.

McCreary said the network’s goal is to find ways to start better conversations in rural Saskatchewan after the 2016 death of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old man from Red Pheasant First Nation, on a farm near Biggar, Sask.

Soon after a trial in which farmer Gerald Stanley was acquitted of second-degree murder, many rural areas of Saskatchewan demanded stricter trespassing laws and greater rural crime enforcement.

“I fundamentally do not believe that most of my neighbours are racist,” McCreary said.

“I think there are ways of increasing understanding. I think there is a level of fear that exists among peoples that are different and I think that by finding paths to develop relationships, we can find ways to better understand each other and overcome those fears.”

Rural settlers and First Nations people have a difficult history, he added.

“This is a way of saying this is our land collectively. Land comes with a package of rights and we need to share some of those rights in ways that recognize that collectively. We have to work together to share the bounties and possibilities of the land.”

Noah Crowe, 6, from Piapot, Sask., found ways to occupy his time while accompanying his grandmother, Deverell Crowe, to the launch of the new land sharing network. | William DeKay photo

Retired university professor Roger Epp, who grew up in Hanley, Sask., reflected on his life as a fifth-generation settler, the relationship with Indigenous people and the ways that Canada once presented the illusion of empty land.

“This is the settler mythology that we simply assumed,” said Epp.

“I do carry the obligations of an ordinary witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I carry the obligation as someone who is fifth-generation settler on Treaty Six land to continue to think about how to do that with a sense of memory and care and obligation.”

Epp said rural settlers and First Nations have similar respect for the land.

“Lots of rural settler folks, their hold on land as farmers, as ranchers, is tenuous enough these days. The prospect of themselves being displaced is one they’ve been staring in the face for a long time.”

The Saskatchewan network comprises about 20 farmers and ranchers in an area from Cochin in the north, east to Fishing Lake and south to Moose Jaw. They will post signs on their properties to welcome Indigenous land users.

A website was also launched at treatylandsharingnetwork.ca that shows a directory of all land within the network.

People who want to share their land can sign up using the website. Indigenous land users can also register.

Smillie said the signs are a welcoming gesture for the Indigenous land users who in most cases want access to pastures and grasslands.

“Our phone number is going to be on that sign and so if people want to make that call to say, ‘I’m an Indigenous land user, I want to access your land,’ we’d say great,” she said.

“Those of us that enjoy white privilege don’t realize, we really have no idea how frightening this can be for people with browner skin than ours to show up at somebody’s farm. Ian and I really want to change that.”

Smillie anticipates most will use the land for gathering medicinal plants and rocks for sweat lodge ceremonies, picking berries, hunting for food, or simply camping.

As a farmer and professional health care provider and in her experiences with aboriginal elders, Smillie said she has come to appreciate that “out-on-the-land programs” are a cornerstone for Indigenous communities.

“The land is not simply our way of life. It is a sacred trust with creation. It is Mother Nature that we get to take in.… Nobody really owns land. We hold title to land. We don’t own the bugs, the birds. We clearly don’t own the rain or the lack thereof,” she said.

While farmers are privileged in their access to land, Indigenous people have been thwarted from similar access, she added.

Mary Culbertson, Saskatchewan’s Treaty Commissioner, said she will erect a sign at her farm in Treaty 4 territory in hopes it will help tear down walls built out of fear, ignorance and racism.

“This is one small but big step in honouring that treaty relationship and having good treaty partners,” said Culbertson.

“I have hope.… This is just the first start. It’s just a little bit. And maybe one day our governments will change in this province to have that understanding of how trespass laws affect Indigenous people.”

Bradley Desjarlais of Fishing Lake First Nation said he’s dumbfounded at what the Treaty Land Sharing Network represents.

“I’m still amazed that this is where you can sit with farmers and they’re inviting me on their land to do treaty rights,” he said.

For years, Desjarlais said, he was persecuted for being on land and often stopped by game wardens while trying to hunt for his family’s food.

“I raised four kids on moose, elk and deer in Saskatchewan. I’m quite proud of it,” he said.

The network will give him the opportunity to practise his treaty rights, he added.

“I’m going to hope that my kids and their kids can experience the benefits of this in the future,” he said.

“We’re just starting now, but in the future it could get pretty big.”

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