The settlement of two specific claims paved the way for the Keeseekoowenin First Nation and Parks Canada to begin to rebuild their relationship and find a way to work together.
As long as First Nation people have lived in what is now Manitoba, they've known of the land the Anishinabe call Wowwaswajicus, the Hill of the Buffalo Chase - a rich country of forests and grasslands -the jewel at its centre is called Wasagaming.
The lake itself, our pronunciation is Washagamee Sagee. They always made a reference to this lake as a sacred [place], for us to come for peace and quiet, for peace and security, to meditate and be close to nature; to be close to the Creator.
Since the early 1700s, treaties signed with First Nations have paved the way for the peaceful settlement and development of much of Canada. Keeseekoowenin First Nation received its reserve near Elphinstone under Treaty 2, signed in 1871. A fishing station on nearby Clear Lake became reserve land in 1896 and the reserve was expanded in 1906.
When Riding Mountain National Park was established in 1930, the reserve land at Clear Lake ended up inside the Park boundaries. In 1935, the government of the day took the land away from the First Nation without their consent and it became part of the Park.
So they all had to come here and live in this little 4x3 reserve while they had all this land that was taken away plus Clear Lake reserve. And later on I understood that it was frustration and anger and yeah, shame, for having allowed this thing to happen, but they were helpless. You could always feel that from people.
The door to a negotiated settlement opened in 1991, when the federal government recognized that the park boundaries should not have included the reserve and negotiation began on the first of Keeseekoowenin's two claims. By 2005, Canada and the First Nation had reached a settlement on both claims. All 435 hectares of the former reserve land at Clear Lake were returned to the First Nation. Keeseekoowenin also received approximately $12 million in compensation. The claim settlement also paved the way for the First Nation and Parks Canada to begin to rebuild their relationship and to find a way to work together.
We were able to negotiate something that was really very nice. It established a senior officials forum, in which the senior officials on both Parks' side and the First Nation side would be able to sit down according to a certain protocol—the rules of the games were now set out. It wasn't the usual way of doing business.
We had not done this before. Returning lands to the First Nation, the hurt that was there, the need for reconciliation… there was a lot of just fear of the unknown. That was mitigated, helped by the commitment of the First Nation to try and find a way to work together. We were committed to that, they were committed to that. It's made a huge difference.
Entrusted with the care and management of some of the country's most valuable resources, Parks Canada has always taken its responsibilities very seriously. But as the forum continued to meet, Parks representatives began to appreciate the value of the First Nation's insights and what would be gained by involving them in the decision-making process.
Parks, for First Nations people is not a job. It's a relationship with the creatures and with the creation that makes up the park. And I think that will be a very rich contribution—to be able to think of the land and the creatures of the Park as part of a personal relationship. It's not simply a preservation or a protection.
I'm feeling pretty confident with my role here as a liaison worker and a project person. I'm feeling proud to be involved with my work and having First Nations influencing the management decisions.
In a world where past grievances and cultural misunderstanding are so often a barrier to real collaboration, Keeseekoowenin and Parks Canada have chosen a different route. The road will be a long and challenging one; but the vision both partners now share—a Wowwaswajicus that honours and protects cultural heritage as well as ecological diversity—make it a journey well worth the taking.
This would not be happening without the tremendous insight and tremendous good will of Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation, without their commitment, their willingness to let us learn, to help us learn, and then find ways of working together.
In fact, our objectives are the same, to make sure that the land is used for all people, that the land is reserved for the future of our people. That's our goal—that's always been our goal.