Previous Article Next Article FNPI Search Home Previous Year Next Year Year List

Chamakese Vs. The Crown

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      FEBRUARY 1993      v22 n02 p04  
On September 8, 1990, Ron Chamakese and five other members of the Pelican Lake First Nation, became the subjects of charges to be laid under The Wildlife Act of Saskatchewan. As a result of an undercover "sting" operation called 'Operation Bill-Bob", Saskatchewan Parks and Renewable Resources (SPRR) followed Ron and his friends around. All of them live on the Chitek Lake Reserve, about five kilometres east of a resort village of Chitek Lake.

What Ron and his friends were doing was exercising their Aboriginal and Treaty rights. They depend on wild game and fowl both for subsistence purposes and to practise their traditions. Nevertheless, Ron, was charged with unlawfully hunting wildlife and trafficking wildlife.

Exactly 124 years earlier, on September 9, 1876, one of the most favourable and progressive Treaties ever negotiated in western Canada was concluded. Chiefs Mistawasis and Atakakohp were instrumental in negotiating several rights for First Nations people. One of them was the right to "pursue their avocations of hunting and fishing throughout" the approximately 120,000 square miles surrendered.

One of the signatures on Treaty 6 was that of Ron's great grandfather, Nee-pee-tah-ah-sew. His son, Chamakese, became the first Chief of the newly formed Pelican lake Band.

In each of the four generations since these legal agreements were made with the Crown, the descendants of Chamakese have learned the traditional ways and ceremonies passed on by their elders. Each generation exercised their hunting and fishing rights as they practised those traditions in their daily lives.

"Operation Bill-Bob" was a scheme in which a young, white man named Pat Langan was recruited and trained by SPRR to gather evidence in order to prosecute Treaty Indians. None of the training material provided to Langan dealt with Aboriginal Rights, Treaty Rights and their relation to provincial jurisdiction or traditional Indian customs. SPRR claims they went undercover because of a few complaints they had received during the year or two prior about so-called illegal hunting activities by Indians.

One day in the summer of 1990, Langan approached Ron Chamakese as he- was fishing off the dock on Chitek Lake and engaged him in idle talk. Ron later invited him to his home and offered him a cup of coffee. Langan told Ron that his mother was Native, that he had experienced a troubled youth, that he was unemployed and camping in a nearby park and that he was interested in learning about native traditions and customs.

Over the next few months, Langan became a friend of the Chamakese family and introduced himself to the Elders and Ron's circle of friends and acquaintances on the reserve. Ron carries a position of respect among his people as a pipe carrier and as a sincere follower of Plains Cree traditions. The Elders have invited him to share a seat of honour with them during traditional feasts and ceremonies.

Both because of respect by Langan and Ron's desire to educate the public regarding his people's traditions, he invited Langan to attend some traditional events. Ron Chamakese, in fact, is the host of annual feasts. After the birth of one of his children, Ron made a vow that he would host a feast of sharing and round dance each yew at the birthday of this child. During the feasts Ron shares the bounty of Mother Earth obtained in traditional ways with all others attending.

"This is our way", Ron points out. "We share what we have, it doesn't matter who you are." SPRR officials, of course, missed the whole point. They were trying to regulate human activity on the lands shared with them by the original inhabitants. And they were viewing these activities according to rules and laws made up by the provincial legislature.

"From where we sit," remarked Ron, "Indian people view such actions as racist. They are deliberately attacking our Native traditions and identities. Besides, according to our Treaties and even the Natural Resources Transfer act of 1930, they have no jurisdiction. They certainly have no business on our reserve.

Unlike the practice of religion in European society, however, Native spirituality and traditions are not isolated to ceremonies, rituals or buildings. "Even when I go to the store or drive the children to school on my school bus," says Ron, "I feel obligated to be a protector and provider of our traditions and rights and the rights we were given by the Creator."

The majority of Ron's day-to-day diet' consists of food obtained by traditional resource usage. "When we hunt, it is still our practice to offer prayers to the Great Spirit and to skin the animal in the bush and leave the remains so that the rest of creation can continue its cycle," explains Ron. "But now conservation officers use the provincial laws to harass Indian hunters. This sometimes forces the hunter to abandon tradition and quickly get rid of the moose or deer so that no traces are left. This is not right."

According to traditional practice, only certain men in the community are designated as hunters. Ron is a pipe-carrier, not a hunter. His duty is to learn the traditional ways under the guidance and wisdom of the Elders.

Like most other members of First Nations living on a reserve, Ron will occasionally go fishing or duck-hunting for his living needs. Unlike most others on the reserve with more than an 80% unemployment rate, Ron gets a meagre income. Hunters will usually share their catch with others in their community. As an expression of thanks, those receiving wild meat sometimes give the hunters bullets, gas or other provisions.

All of these matters were explained to the undercover agent but as it turns out Ron was wasting his time. The SPRR and the provincial government supporting this plot appear to have bigger goals in mind than simply protecting wildlife. In 1951, revisions were made to the Indian Act which no longer made it illegal to practice the Potlatch and the Sundance. The Government of Canada finally came to its senses and recognized that these laws were racist and designed to undermine the culture of indigenous peoples.

Forty years later governments are still trying to squash the traditional ways of Aboriginal peoples. All the charges laid as a result of "Operation Bill-Bob" are based on activities that stem from the practice of traditional ways. A few decades ago, white officials were bold enough to admit that their goals were to assimilate, civilize and convert "savage peoples" for purposes of the "Dominion" and material gain. Not much has changed except that now it is done under the disguise of distorted notions about wildlife conservation or economic development.

Last April, Ron Chamakese and five other members of the Pelican Lake First Nation went to trial facing 22 individual charges including unlawful hunting of wildlife and trafficking in wildlife. Judge Morris of the Provincial Court in Meadow Lake rendered her decision on December 3, 1992 and found them not guilty on 12 of the 22 charges laid.

Some charges were dropped because those accused had received permission from the farmers to hunt on their property. Others were dismissed because of insufficient evidence or hearsay. One was dropped because the conservation officer had seized a rifle from a private vehicle on the reserve without obtaining a search warrant.

There is also a case to be made for entrapment by the undercover agent. Based on a copy of the official notes kept by Langan, it appears Ron and his friends were induced by the agent. Under false pretences of Indian descent, the agent set it up so that they would share the fruit of their labour as traditional resource users with him.

Such a defence may not hold up according to the rules of white courts but to this day, Ron Chamakese is overwhelmed with sadness when he thinks of the betrayal and deceit he suffered at the hands of the agent. Pat Langan was his friend. His children looked forward to the visits Langan made to the Chamakese home. Ron not only showed hospitality; he shared from his centre about his Indian identity.

That's just the way Ron is. He is proud of his cultural heritage and his place on this earth. He holds a passion to share Aboriginal traditions with the wider community so that they will be respected. His family shares that vision as they travel with him to local public schools to display and explain traditional Indian dances and practices.

Ron respects other ways of doing things; that too is part of his traditional perspective. But he draws the line when these other ways have the effect of restricting his freedom and right to practice his traditions. "As a Cree person, my freedom and my responsibility comes from the Creator," Ron points out. "I don't have to be told about my duties and what is right and wrong by some piece of paper. I know what my obligations are from creation."

On the remaining 10 charges, Judge Morris convicted Ron and his friends. They received fines totalling an amount of $11,000.00. That was four days before Christmas. Meeting their daily needs is already a hardship with the realities of reserve life. Having to pay thousands of dollars in fines is impossible.

One would think the Crown would be satisfied with the Judge's ruling. Instead the prosecutor is appealing the 13 not guilty verdicts to a higher court. To do this, he had to get permission from Robert Mitchell, Minister of Justice for Saskatchewan. He got it.

The justice system has long been held in disrepute

Cont'd Page 5

Chamakese Vs. The Crown

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      FEBRUARY 1993      v22 n02 p05  
among Aboriginal people right across this country. It has been used against Indians despite Justice Dickson's ruling in 1983 in the Supreme Court of Canada that "treaties and statutes relating to Indians should be liberally construed and doubtful expressions resolved in favour of the Indians."

What is at stake for the Provincial government in the case of "Operation Bill-Bob"? Why should the government place such a high priority on this case? Surely a few ducks and some over-populated deer do not warrant the time and expense of a nine month undercover operation, eight months of court proceedings, and now a costly appeal procedure.

Could it be that the provincial government is using the Courts to get more clout in matters of federal-provincial disputes? Is this part of a plot to gain the upper hand in negotiating self- government with First Nations? Or is it that the practice of Aboriginal traditions and the exercise of Treaty Rights is still a threat to white governments and officials? And if so, why?

Past relations between First Nations and white governments have clearly indicated a common denominator in all disputes that have arisen: short-sighted commercial interests and the control that comes with it. One of the fastest growing industries in northern Saskatchewan besides mineral extraction is outfitting.

Some outfitters charge $1,650.00, the same amount as the fine levied against Ron Chamakese for trafficking wildlife, to outfit one hunter for a deer-hunting expedition. According to Ron, the practice of these outfitters is to bait the deer with food at a fixed location. While the deer is feeding, the hunters located on platforms built on trees can leisurely shoot the deer of their choice. What is then often done, particularly by American hunters, is to cut off the head for slow-piece purposes and the carcass is left behind.

What Ron did was an expression of thankfulness and generosity. He was indirectly involved in assisting some Indian hunters with their basic needs in their traditional role. The actual incident for which he was convicted has all the makings of a "set-up" perpetrated by the undercover agent.

The outfitters make a profit. Ron has to pay a fine.