Network of Sask. farmers, ranchers open land to indigenous peoples to exercise treaty rights

Farmers, ranchers and natives circled around Mary Smillie and her husband, Ian McCreary, as the two farmers erected a sign on their property and opened it to native farmers.

Their grain and livestock farm near Bladworth south of Saskatoon is the first in Saskatchewan to send a sign announcing that the country is open to natives practicing their treaty rights.

It is a step towards respecting the land rights of the Treaty as part of the Land Sharing Network, which provides a safe space for indigenous peoples to use the land for their own practice.

“We really need to respect the intent of the treaty, which was the division of land,” said Smillie, a member of the coordination committee for the network of farmers, ranchers and other landowners who work together to ensure compliance with the treaties.

“We should not need these signs – it is unfortunate that we do. So if the signs become unnecessary, that is what we hope for.”

Before people erected the first sign of the land division network, people attended a pipe ceremony and speech circles. (Dayne Patterson / CBC)

So far, the signs will be a beacon for indigenous peoples that the land is available for hunting, collecting plants and medicine, ceremonies and other treaty practices.

Other farmers and ranchers got their own signs to plant on their land. Smillie says about 20 landowners have joined the network.

Joel Mowchenko is another farmer opening his land. It has been in his family for a century, he says, but he has recently learned a lot about the country’s history from original elders and scholars.

But more than that, it honors a historic deal with indigenous peoples.

“It’s not us who’s overly generous or altruistic or anything like that. We say this that First Nations people have treaty rights to access the land and take advantage of the resources in the land,” Mowchenko said.

“And we just want to offer a safe space where they can exercise their treaty rights.”

Secure access to land

Mary Culbertson, Saskatchewan’s treaty commissioner, says the network is the first of its kind in the province. She added that she will take a sign to post on her own farm.

Culbertson says conversations about the network started after the death of Colten Boushie, a young Saskatchewan native who was fatally shot by a Saskatchewan farmer in 2016. Gerald Stanley was found not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter in Boushie’s death.

She says seeing the new signs of land division gives hope that “we do not live in a province with completely racist people and misogyny.”

As Culbertson spoke, she wiped subtle tears from her eyes.

“Our First Nations people, our elders, our indigenous peoples lived from time immemorial of this land to feed themselves, to heal themselves,” she said.

Saskatchewan Treaty Commissioner Mary Culbertson, left, takes her own sign to post on her farm. (Dayne Patterson / CBC)

Brad Desjarlais is an Anishinaabe man from Fish Lake’s first nation who hunts to put food on the table. He said he was happily “amazed” and “amazed” by the network.

“We are so used to being persecuted for being on a person’s land. Now we are actually being asked that we can go to the countryside and complete our collection of food and medicine,” he said.

“I hope that my children and their children, they can experience the benefits of this in the future,” Desjarlais said. “Once we see these signs … we know we can exercise our rights without persecution.”

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