Despite the Prime Minister’s grand promises of a renewed “nation to nation relationship” between Canada and its Aboriginal peoples, one Alberta First Nation is finding it hard to get some basic answers out of this government. Back in 2010, the federal government along with the Alberta government, came to an settlement agreement with Bigstone Cree First Nation that paid them, and their new offshoot, Peerless Trout First Nation, a grand total of $259.4 million. This settlement was made because of a failure by the Canadian government to follow through on the agricultural benefits portion of the original treaty, Treaty 8, signed by First Nations all across B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and The Northwest Territories. This agricultural benefits clause, colloquially referred to as the “cows and plows” promise, contained a commitment from the federal government to provide the tools and resources needed for each band household to start up a farm. According to documents obtained by The Post Millennial, some of these items included axes, handsaws, augers, grindstones, whetstones, hoes, spades, scythes, horses, a yoke of oxen, cows, bulls and even a mowing machine. Eventually, after a 100 years of inaction, the federal government began to negotiate with the Treaty 8 Nations in 1999 to determine what the cash value of the items promised would be today. Many First Nations were able to secure multi-million dollar settlements from the federal government and were able to pay their members up to $45,000 each, the estimated amount one would need to start a farm today. This past year, two northern Saskatchewan First Nations were able to settle for a combined $177 million, with individual member dividends of $45,000 being paid out in $5,000 increments every six months. However, when Bigstone reached their agreement in 2010, individual band members only received $3,500 in total. As more settlements are reached with different Treaty 8 First Nations, band members in Bigstone are left wondering why haven’t they received more? Travis Gladue-Beauregard, founder the Bigstone Empowerment Society, a group which seeks to increase transparency at Bigstone, started a petition to have the federal government release the negotiation minutes so band members can get a clear idea of what the band leadership agreed to. Signed by Bigstone Members both on and off reserve, this petition gained strong support from places like Fort Saint John, Edmonton, Calgary, High Prairie, Grande Prairie, Slave Lake, Valley View, & Cadotte Lake. Conservative MP Arnold Viersen, representing the northern Albertan constituency of Peace River-Westlock, brought the petition forward in the House of Commons this past Fall. In an email response received by Viersen’s office from a policy advisor to the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett, the advisor simply pointed out that the agreement had already been made and that the government had paid out its required portion. This leaves the band members back where they started, looking for answers from their local and federal leaders. A tension found in many First Nations across Canada, on-reserve members often clash with off-reserve members as to how the money from treaties should be spent or saved. On-reserve members often favour investing the money into the reserve to improve and expand the existing infrastructure. Off-reserve band members in particular are upset by the lack of transparency. Off-reserve members prefer to see the money given to each individual member so that they can decide to use it as they please. Many of the off-reserve Bigstone members feel that continuing to put money into the reserve is a waste of the Treaty benefits and prevents them from further improving their lives off-reserve. Gladue-Beauregard, an off-reserve band member himself, told The Post Millennial “Off-reserve members are not benefitting from this agreement because we don't depend upon the band and the government to for handouts. Having our treaty rights being trampled upon is not helping us to empower ourselves to build a better life for the future.” Due to the lack of transparency surrounding the agreement and its payment structure, Bigstone members are now considering taking legal action against the federal government and the former chief and council.
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