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Urban Indians, Special Report: City Indians: Refugees From Saskatchewan Reserves

Bruce Spence

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MAY 1988      p19  
Albert Scott Centre
Albert Scott Centre

Ten years ago, the Chiefs of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians (FSI) released a report that said one-third of their band members had moved away from their home reserves. The 1978 report, Survey of Off-Reserve Band Members, said rural treaty Indians were migrating to urban centres like Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert in increasing numbers. The survey also stated the migration pattern would continue if "present circumstances and conditions on reserves prevail" and predicted that within 20 years "over half of the members of Saskatchewan Bands will be living off their home reserves."

A decade after the survey was made public it appears the prediction is coming true right on schedule. Roland Crowe, Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), said in a recent interview that 40 to 45 percent of the 65,000 treaty and status Indians in the province do not live on a reserve. According to records kept by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), the percentage of "off-reserve" Indians in the Saskatchewan region topped the forty percent mark in 1987, when there were about 27,000 band members living off-reserve.

The fact that so many constituents of the Indian governments of Saskatchewan have found refuge in the cities is forcing the FSIN to address many questions as the 1990's approach. At the top of the list is the impact the off-reserve population is having on the treaties. Some observers say such a large population based away from home weakens Indian government and the treaty position. The off-reserve people themselves are concerned that many FSIN chiefs seem more determined to keep them away than to welcome them home. They say FSIN's political structure excludes them from participating in what is supposed to be a democratic government. Questions of federal and provincial jurisdiction and constitutional rights for aboriginal people also come into play.

While the FSIN wrestles with these and other political issues, the majority of treaty people in the cities are concerned with one thing...survival.

The Chiefs, government departments, university researchers and ordinary Indian people will tell you the reason so many have left the reserves is poverty. The conditions that "prevailed" a decade ago have not improved. In 1988, reserve life is still characterized by high infant mortality, teenage suicide, relentless unemployment, poor housing, alcohol related deaths and crime.

The same people will tell you life for those who left is like a cruel joke played by some unseen force. While many who left have enjoyed the "benefits" of city life; better employment and education prospects, shorter housing, better transportation and communication, and so on - for most, the move may not have been what it was cracked up to be. For most Indian people in Regina and Saskatoon the cycle of poverty continues as much in the city as it does out on "the reserve".

The off reserve band member question is not new to Indian politics in the province. When the original FSI

Urban Indians, Special Report: City Indians: Refugees From Saskatchewan Reserves

Bruce Spence

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MAY 1988      p20  
constitution was drafted in 1959, provisions were made for the representation of band members who had moved to Saskatchewan's two major cities and small centres such as Yorkton, Prince Albert, Moose Jaw and North Battleford. Indians living in these places were represented at chiefs' conferences by two voting delegates for each centre.

In 1982, the FSI restructured under a convention of Indian Nations agreeing to work together with certain principles. Representation for off- reserve delegates was removed and since the FSIN had restructured as an Indian Government the jurisdiction of the Chief and Council was to be extended to all of the band members wherever they may live.

The process of recognizing all band members is continuing as more and more bands move toward band custom.

There have also been some more recent developments within FSIN as a result of the urban Indian issue. In early 1988 a group of treaty people in Saskatoon established the Saskatoon Treaty Indian Council (STIC). The group, led by Grant Severight of the Cote Band, made a presentation to the chiefs at the Spring Session of the Chiefs Legislative Assembly in Yorkton. The chiefs responded by passing a resolution to "develop a comprehensive strategy" on off-reserve treaty organizations. In April, 1988, Chief Crowe of the FSIN announced the establishment of a special task force to examine the urban Indian issue. Crowe said FSIN would be opening "Treaty Administration Centres" in several Saskatchewan locations.

Also in April 1988, FSIN sponsored a public meeting that was held at City Hall in Regina A panel that included Chief Crowe; Angus Mclean, FSIN's Consultant on Urban Issues; Oliver Brass, President of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC); Henry Delorme, Vice-Chief of the FSIN; Eugene Poitras of the Rec-Tech Program; Walter Gordon of the FSIN; Ted Keewatin of the New Dawn Drug and Alcohol Abuse counselling program and others made presentations to about 150 people at the meeting. All voiced support for the new FSIN initiative and encouraged the people to support it too.

But there were hints of pessimism expressed from the floor in the question and answer period that followed the presentations. Leonard LaPlante identified himself as a non-status Indian whose application for treaty status had been accepted by the federal government under Bill C-31, but rejected by his ancestor's band Fishing Lake. He asked if joining this group would guarantee that his children would still be treaty "10 or 15 years down the road". Although none of the panellists would make any promises, LaPlante said he still supported the concept of organizing off-reserve people.

Danielle Woodward, a student at the SIFC who is from the Piapot band just outside Regina, asked Chief Crowe if the FSIN would allow off-reserve band members to vote in their elections. Crowe replied that the elected band councils already represent their members and no changes were planned for the FSIN structure that would include off-reserve voters. Les GoForth, an urban Indian originally from the Peepeekisis Reserve said FSIN's structure discriminated against urban people.

Suburban and Urban Indian - cartoon

Urban Indians, Special Report: City Indians: Refugees From Saskatchewan Reserves

Bruce Spence

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MAY 1988      p21  
But despite the pessimism, most of the people at the meeting said they will support FSIN's initiative and signed up to sit on committees for housing, social development, and education.

In an interview, Les GoForth said FSIN's removal of representation for off-reserve band members was a bad move. He said the original spirit and intent of the treaties made band members treaty for life. A person is still a treaty Indian even if he leaves the reserve, and denied a vote either by the Indian Act. When asked why he thought the Chiefs do not appear to be making any changes to this policy, he said:

"Because right now they're safe and sound at the reserve, in their own communities with their own people and their own electors. The existing Indian Act is discriminatory to urban Indians and some of the band custom election acts that are being developed on reserves are just as discriminatory. "So their jobs are safe. It's for personal gain." "Now put yourself in a chief's position. If you are elected by only 81 people from a reserve with a population of 1200, and you knew you only got in by one vote, and you're a chief for two years, and you want to continue being chief for another ten years, are you going to allow all the urban Indians that you haven't been providing services for over the last 20 years to suddenly vote?" "You're not going to be in there."

Other urban Indians are also wondering out loud why the FSIN seems reluctant to make changes to its political structure. Violet Munro is from the John Smith Band near Prince Albert. She's been living in Saskatoon for the last 15 years and was recently elected as one of eight councillors for STIC, a group that claims to represent 8,000 treaty Indians in that city. She says the only input ordinary people have within FSIN is the right to vote in band elections. Unfortunately, not everyone has this right. Bands under the control of the Indian Act can stop people from voting if they've been off-reserve for over a year. Several "band custom" reserves have worked this policy into their election acts. Munro says FSIN's refusal to make changes denies half of the treaty people in the province one of the most fundamental of human rights, the right to vote.

Just as Munro and other urban Indians say the chiefs should realign their organization, Chief Crowe just as adamantly rejects making such changes.

"All of the treaty and registered Indians in this province are represented by their chiefs and councillors. That is an accurate statement, that is a fact of life, that's the way it is," Crowe says.

The fact that so many constituents of the Indian governments of Saskatchewan have found refuge in the cities is forcing the FSIN to address many questions as the 1990's approach.

When asked if people who reside off-reserve are adequately represented by the Federation, Crowe reiterated, "Their band elections represent the total band. The chief and council represent those people and we have no view in our minds of changing that process"

The FSIN represents 72 autonomous Indian governments so the question of voting rights resides at the level of each individual band.

If any common ground exists between the chiefs and urban groups, it is that both point to the federal Indian Act, and the federal department that administers it (INAC), as the colonial agency that created such a dilemma. Band election regulations in the act restrict voting. The act dictates that any band member who resides off-reserve for more than one year cannot vote in band council elections. Chief Crowe offers the suggestion that bands opt for the "Custom of the Band" route as one way of overcoming the Indian Act restrictions.

Custom of the Band allows some improvement to the self-governing process. It "gives" individual bands the alternative of opting out of the Indian Act regulations that govern band elections. In other words, a band choosing the "custom" option is not hamstrung to obey the Indian Act. Band governments in this category may allow off-reserve members to vote in their elections. Of course, such bands could conceivably prevent its off-reserve membership from full participation.

According to the documents provided by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) in Regina, 42 of the 69 Saskatchewan reserve governments are still under the jurisdiction of the Indian Act, including the regulations governing band elections. According to INAC, the other 27 governments have gone the custom of the band route. The band still under Indian Act regulation are bound by federal legislation not to allow off-reserve members to vote, even if more people live off-reserve than on. If INAC and FSIN estimates are accurate, it means the question of representation of off-reserve Indians must be overcome because at least 60 percent of all Saskatchewan band governments cannot allow off-reserve members to vote, while 45 percent of the total Indian population in the province actually live off-reserve.

It is the government of Canada's obligation by treaty to offer basic services in return for the vast amount of land and resources surrendered by the Indian nations of Saskatchewan.

Urban Indians, Special Report: City Indians: Refugees From Saskatchewan Reserves

Bruce Spence

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MAY 1988      p22  
Some of the most detailed research ever done on Indians who move to cities was conducted in the early 1980's by Stewart Clatworthy and Jeremy Hull for the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg. Some of their research adds another element to the profile of the typical off-reserve treaty Indian living in Regina or Saskatoon. One part of their work was surveys of 731 "native" households in both cities. Their data seems to confirm that the typical urban Indian is young, single and female. Their report, Native Economic Conditions in Regina and Saskatoon (1981), says "younger age groups and females dominates the migrants to both Regina and Saskatoon. In both cities, Status Indians account for the vast majority of recent immigrants."

The report on Regina and Saskatoon's native population also says most are poor, living below Canada's poverty line which is placed at just under $20,000 per family of four per year by Statistics Canada. Statistics Canada defines the poverty line by the amount of money spent by a family on food, shelter and clothing. Of more than 58.5 percent of a total annual income is spent on the basic necessities, that family is below the line. Clatworthy and Hull say poverty in "native households is roughly four times that of the general populations of Regina and Saskatoon with more than 81 percent of Regina's native households "below the poverty line".

In addition to this, Statistics Canada reports that the province of Saskatchewan has the highest level of child poverty in the country. According to them, there were some 64,000 children below their poverty line just two years ago. Soup kitchens across the province are scrambling for feed the hungry. A report released by the provincial government two years ago titled, "Education Equity", acknowledged what Indian people had been saying for a long time, that 90 percent of aboriginal children never get passed grade 12. On the surface, it appears that the lot of the urban Indians has not improved since the days of Clatworthy and Hull, in spite of the huge amount of tax dollars spent - a million dollars a day, according to Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine.

Urban photo

The Indian Nations in Saskatchewan were destitute when the treaties were made a hundred years ago. Today they still are. There are indications that INAC's role in off-reserve issues is practically non-existent while they have contributed to the endless poverty cycle on reserves. INAC will not support an off-reserve family if they've been away from home for more than a year. After their probationary period off-reserve is completed, the family would then graduate to provincial welfare, which is generally considered more generous than federal welfare. But still not enough to live on. It could be that treaty Indians are slowly but surely becoming less of a responsibility to the government of Canada, and more of a headache for the province.

The Minister of Indian and Native Affairs for Premier Grant Devine's cabinet is Grant Hodgins, MLA for Melfort. Hodgins was approached for an interview but was unavailable for comment. While Canada, Saskatchewan and the FSIN grapple with the treaty Indians in their cities issue, others have taken it upon themselves to do something about it. Across the province, there are literally hundreds of small and large groups and organizations dedicated to improving the lot of down-trodden. There are individuals working within government agencies as well. If either the provincial or federal government are not funding the street-level work, a church or charity organization is. In cities like Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina there are people who work with child prostitutes, runaways, alcoholics, battered wives, and abused children.

One such person is Theresa Stevenson, a treaty Indian who left the Cowesses Reserve near Broadview with her husband in 1955. Today in Regina, Stevenson spearheads a group which feeds school children in an inner city community centre. At lunch time on Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays, about 100 children flock to the Albert Scott Community Centre for a hot lunch of soup or chili and bannock.

Stevenson, and others like her say it is the children who are suffering the most. They say something should be done. Relations between people and groups like Stevenson's and the Devine government are not good at the moment. Devine has been following an austerity program that has groups like this as its main fiscal restraint victims. And Devine doesn't mind engaging in a little victim bashing as well. Like his colleague, Bill Vander Zalm in British Columbia, Devine feels, the poor are poor because it's

Urban Indians, Special Report: City Indians: Refugees From Saskatchewan Reserves

Bruce Spence

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MAY 1988      p23  
their own fault. This attitude is manifested in funding cutbacks to school dental programs, battered wife shelters, and so on.

"I know governments are saying that people are lazy, that they don't want to get up in the morning and feed their children, that they don't love them," Stevenson said in an interview.

"That's such a laugh. It's easy for them to say that. Their stomachs are full and they've got plenty. They're well-to-do people who are too proud to admit there are hungry people here."

"An while they're being proud there is somebody out there who is suffering."

Stevenson said she's tried twice to have the province provide financial support to programs to feed hungry people, most of whom appear to be Indians. Both of her applications were rejected. I never got one cent from the government, she says.

Stevenson says her program's funding all comes from donations made by individuals or churches or the school boards.

Stevenson says she doubts if the chiefs of the FSIN really know how far reaching poverty is among city Indians. But they have helped. A benefit hockey game at the Agridome between FSIN and INAC staff raised $600. The money came in just as Stevenson's program went broke. "They saved the day for us that time", she said.

She says she and her family were forced to leave the reserve when they did because of starvation. She knows hunger.

Treaty people leave the reserve for many reasons. To get more welfare, better employment opportunities, and education. As it now stands, half of the treaty population has left. Most say they'd like to return, but not under present conditions. The rights these people have by treaty could be leaving and staying away with them.