The band apart, the people together

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This is probably the first time that you’ve ever heard of the Michel First Nation, which isn’t surprising. It’s real, but it only seems to exist in the hearts of its members, now scattered throughout the area and beyond. It exists as a kind of dream that was a reality once upon a time.

Only one man still lives on a fraction of the former land though he has hundreds of others standing with him even if they aren’t right beside him.

Ernie Callihoo was born just across the road and up the hill from where his house is. His land, a quarter section, is barely a thumbnail compared to the former size of the reservation.

“I’m the only one … the last one still living on the old Michel Reserve. I still got my land there. I call it sacred land,” he said.

It is a beautiful piece of land, the only thing that mars it is what happened to the people. It’s absurd and frustrating – infuriating even – that they had to give up their home and their identity as Aboriginals in order to be considered citizens.

The history of the band

Before Treaty 6 began in 1876, there was a group of Aboriginals of Iroquois and Cree descent who lived near what is now Villeneuve. They became the Michel Band, named after Chief Michel Callihoo, and entered the treaty two years later by way of an adhesion. The band was assigned a reserve, Michel I.R. 132, approximately 25,000 acres in size and located on the Sturgeon River, about 13 km to the northwest of Father Lacombe’s new Roman Catholic Mission in St. Albert.

It was a plum spot and they farmed it amazingly, even if they needed an Indian agent’s okay every time they wanted to sell an egg, or step off the land, or do anything really.

Three times in the early 1900s, the band was successfully pressured to give up sections of the reserve in exchange for much-needed tools that were already promised to them. The federal government took those surrendered lands and auctioned them off, underselling them for pennies on the dollar. Even the final sales were scandalous as many of the winning bidders didn’t even pay in full. The band received hardly any of the money back. One of those who benefited greatly at their expense was former Edmonton MP Frank Oliver who acquired land through a secret deal.

Soon afterward, the Crown unilaterally surrendered 41 more acres of the reserve without consent or compensation to the Michel people. Their land was being amputated and they could do nothing about it … a few hundred acres here, a few thousand there. On and on it went.

More pressure came in the 1920s. The Department of Indian Affairs persuaded 10 Michel Band families to enfranchise in order to gain the same rights and freedoms that all other Canadian citizens already had, including the right to vote and pursue post-secondary education. Some were okay with it as long as it meant that the residential schools wouldn’t take their kids. Instead, they would be able to establish a school right nearby. Others just wanted to get away from the Indian Act. Some of them were returning war veterans who signed up to access federal benefits that should have been automatic. In enfranchising, however, they lost their Indian status.

This pressure continued, now by neighbouring settlers, through the following decades. As more people took the deal, it made it harder for the others to not do the same.

“People were having a hard time; they were starving. They hadn’t been able to work. Reserve life was very difficult. People sold their land so that they would have something, which was really, really unfortunate,” explained Maureen Ligtvoet Callihoo, Ernie’s daughter and a current band councillor. “I think that a lot of people wanted to keep their land… they just couldn’t.”

By 1958, the Department of Indian Affairs decided to make the Michel Band a model for group enfranchisement: the first of its kind to lead the path for all the other bands. It was almost illegal except that the government changed the law. It certainly was inhumane. None of the Michel people had any say in it. It broke up families. Many moved away and fell into troubles.

“You say enfranchisement should be a good thing but it really isn’t. You have to give up your identity as a person,” she said, remarking that she encountered many people who didn’t know where they belonged and so they self-medicated with drugs or alcohol. “That brings a lot of grief. Grief takes a long time to recover from.”

Thankfully, no other band would receive group enfranchisement. The government stopped the practice immediately, not that any of that helped the Michel people. It wouldn’t be until 27 years later when things would start to change back.

That was when more than 750 Michel Band members had their Indian status restored under amendments to the Indian Act (Bill C-31). That bill included a provision for the restoration of status of the Michel Band itself but it wasn’t applied.

That same year, the Band filed a claim that alleged that the enfranchisements were all invalid, and that the Government of Canada breached its statutory and fiduciary duties in relation to various surrenders of reserve land obtained from the Michel Band in the early 1900s.

Unbelievably, the government has stalled the court process, even throwing it out for lack of progress over time, thus leaving the band trying to scrape together more money for legal fees. Their cries for justice continue, even if they seem to be falling on deaf ears.

As former Chief Gilbert Anderson is quoted on a placard on the wall in the Musée Héritage Museum, “It is the position of the Michel Band that the band does exist, has always existed, and will continue to exist. It is not an act of creation that we seek, but rather recognition of our continued existence.”

Even the Treaty 6 chiefs have recognized the Michel First Nation since 2008.

The matter has become a legal battle with a lot of back and forth, most of it not going well for the band. A detailed history of events can be found at www.michelfirstnation.com.

The future can redeem the past

Chief Gil Goerz says that the fight continues and that there is some hope, especially with the recent regime change in federal politics.

“With the new Liberal government, they’re a lot more friendly towards the First Nations than previous governments have been,” he said. “A directive even came from the Crown lawyer herself stating that if we would drop our appeal then they would be open to discussions. They threw a carrot at us.”

Goerz has his work cut out for him. Because of the fracturing that occurred, the Michel people have become diaspora both in physical location and otherwise. There are hundreds of status members on a list but there are likely hundreds of others who aren’t for one reason or another. He says that there are probably more non-status members “because of the criteria that Indian Affairs has.”

Determining exactly who the Michel Band is any more is just another hurdle. In the absence of official band status, a group called the Friends of Michel Society was formed to provide them with a formal legal entity. They already have had a band council and chief since 1988, a critical step towards self-governance. All that’s really left is to get Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to agree on what everyone else seems to agree on.

“When the band… was enfranchised in 1958, they no longer declared us as Indians or as a collective or anything. We were just ordinary citizens. To regain that, that’s the process we have to go through. We have to say that that was wrong for them to do that at that time,” he said.

“In order to enfranchise Michel as a band, the government had to change the law under a portion of the Indian Act. They did that for Michel. One year later, they reinstated it. They couldn’t do it any more. All of the shenanigans they went through to get rid of us as Indians …” he sighed.

In the meantime, they hope to gain as much support from the public as possible. Lawyers don’t pay for themselves. What’s important is what’s right, Goerz says, and they just have to always stay on that track.

“Our main focus and goal right now in our discussions is to find out who we are, get recognition as an aboriginal collective, and we would like to be outside the Indian Act.”

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Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.