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Looking Back at the Legal Battle over the Montney Reserve

Famous for oil and gas, the area was subject to a lengthy dispute between the Crown and Doig River and Blueberry First Nations.

Manavpreet Singh 29 May 2023Energeticcity.ca

Manavpreet Singh is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter. This story was originally published by Energeticcity.ca.

The Montney Reserve, famous for oil and gas, represents a conflict that resulted in a lengthy legal battle for land and treaty rights following a complicated history between Canada and Indigenous people.

In 1945, the Department of Indian Affairs forced the Fort St. John Beaver Band from the Montney Reserve, and the land was given to returning veterans from the Second World War, according to the Doig River website.

Doig River First Nation members said First Nation leaders during the 1940s couldn’t read or write English — an essential factor in the loss of the Montney Reserve land.

Sandra Apsassin, the Elders co-ordinator for Blueberry River First Nations, talked about the loss of the Montney Reserve in the Before the Peace podcast, saying it “breaks her heart” every time she thinks about it.

“Our place of happiness was taken away from us by wrongdoings of the Indian affairs, which changed everything for our First Nation communities,” Apsassin said.

According to Elder Gerry Attachie, a former Chief of Doig River First Nation, their ancestors were the guardians of Gat Tah Kwą, also known as the Montney Reserve. Attachie was one of the first people to fight for the land rights of Montney Reserve, and both Doig River and Blueberry River First Nations received compensation.

The Beaver people used the Montney Reserve area to celebrate births, settle disputes and participate in traditional singing and drumming, according to Attachie.

Doig River Chief Trevor Makadahay says it is essential to understand the First Nations’ perspective to comprehend such a historical event, which is rarely discussed in schools and media.

Makadahay believes the Canadian government should have acknowledged the band’s history and traditions.

“Our Elders still feel the pain of losing Montney Reserve to the Indian affairs,” said Makadahay.

According to Attachie, once Treaty 8 was signed, the Beaver Band was given the Montney Reserve.

“We call that ‘Where Happiness Dwells,’ our gathering place. So we were there [until] 1945,” said Attachie.

According to the Saulteau First Nations website, “Treaty 8, hailed as a treaty of Peace, was signed on June 21, 1899. The treaty covers 840,000 [square kilometres] across three provinces and the Northwest Territories. The treaty’s promises were based on peace, friendship and the nations’ ability to continue their way of life ‘For as long as the Sun Shines, the Grass Grows and the Rivers Flow.’”

Five Treaty 8 First Nations recently settled Treaty Land Entitlement claims with provincial and federal governments. According to a provincial release, the settlements resolved decades-old claims by these First Nations, stating they did not receive all the lands owed them in Treaty 8 claims. These First Nations first signed the Treaty of Land Entitlements in 1899.

In his book Where Happiness Dwells: A history of the Dane-zaa First Nations, Robin Ridington and Jillian Ridington explain that treaties are constitutionally recognized agreements between the Crown and Indigenous people in Canada.

Attachie says treaties are symbolic in nature for First Nations as they allow sacred land to be used with respect to traditions and ancestors’ values.

Born in 1948, Attachie was too young to understand the impact of losing his ancestors’ land. He spent a great deal of time talking to Elders in the 1970s and 1980s to understand what happened fully with their Montney land.

“When I was a kid, I always spent my time with Elders to learn and understand the history of our land,” Attachie said.

Around 1977, Attachie became the Doig River First Nation Chief. Although he did not have a formal education, his passion and dedication to his community were the driving force behind his success.

While talking on the Before the Peace podcast, Attachie recalled his family’s political involvement. The former Chief said leadership skills were in his genes due to his family’s active participation in First Nations politics.

“My dad was a councillor, and my grandfather was a Chief.”

In 1949, oil and gas reserves were discovered on the Montney Reserve. In 1952, the Fort St. John Beaver Band was forced to move north of Fort St. John, which resulted in some families moving to Doig River and some to Blueberry River, according to the Alaska Highway News (Sept. 20, 1978) archive at the North Peace Museum.

The Montney Reserve is about seven miles north of Fort St. John, spanning 18,000 acres across the Montney Formation, which is rich in oil. There is enough gas in the Montney area to last the country 140 years, according to the Canada Energy Regulator.

David Spurr, the author of The Rhetoric of the Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing and Imperial Administration, explained that the language of the press in the Peace region between 1944 to 1946 had no mention of First Nations. He claims the press fulfilled the government’s role by calling it an agricultural advancement for the area.

“White settlers were repeatedly presented as heroic individuals at the vanguard of progress,” wrote Spurr.

Attachie feels that the two parties never understood each other. He believes that lack of communication and the wrong intentions of Indian affairs were responsible for the loss of the Montney Reserve.

“Our leaders never fully understand the surrender of mineral rights and the sale of Montney reserve, but on the other hand, Indian affairs were fully aware of their actions and intentions,” he said.

When Attachie became a councillor in 1974, an Indian agent informed him about the mineral rights to the Montney Reserve.

“[An] Indian agent told me that we have been ripped off, and we should go to the court to attain our legal rights,” Attachie said.

The mineral rights were influential during the trial, and Attachie needed to be prepared before going to court.

“We hired lawyers, did a lot of research, read books to understand every aspect of Montney Reserve and how it was stolen from us,” Attachie explained.

In September 1978, Chiefs from the Doig and Blueberry began joint legal action against the Government of Canada, claiming the damages of the improper surrender of the reserve and mineral rights.

After various challenges along the way, in 1995, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the mistakes made by the Government of Canada.

In the Montney claim case, the court found that the Department of Indian Affairs had breached a fiduciary duty to the Beaver Band by selling rather than leasing mineral rights. This was a win for the First Nations.

Makadahay explained that the case took 20 years of legal action to reach the final settlement with the federal government, and in 1998, the nations settled out of court for breach of trust and lost oil and gas revenues. Because the Doig and Blueberry River First Nations shared Montney Reserve, Joe Apsassin, Chief of the Blueberry First Nation, was also involved in the case.

Thomas R. Berger, who worked on the Montney claim case, described Gerry Attachie as a leader of the Montney cause.

“[G]erry Attachie, Chief of the Doig River Band, had been the champion of the Montney cause for 20 years. He had taken the file to a lawyer in the first instance. He had, after the trial judgment went against the Indians, urged an appeal. He had come to Ottawa for the hearing before the Supreme Court of Canada. No one had been associated for as long as he had been with the Montney claim. But every cause needs someone who will not give up. [G]erry was there at the finish,” Berger wrote in One Man’s Justice: A Life in the Law.

“Gerry Attachie was the Chief of Doig River from the beginning to the end of this momentous 21-year fight for justice.”

For Attachie, this long journey for justice was an adventure and a tremendous learning experience as he played different roles in serving his community. He acknowledges that it was only possible because of the First Nation’s Elders and their storytelling tradition.

Attachie says the money they received from the Crown was used to build a community hall, the rodeo ground and other essential buildings at Doig River.

Despite First Nations still having to fight, progress is being made, such as the recent agreement between Blueberry River First Nation and the provincial government and the recent Treaty Land Entitlement settlement signings in the Peace region.

The settlement of the Treaty Land Entitlement claims results from efforts by Chiefs, councils and negotiators, who have been working together to find a resolution since 2004. According to a provincial release, by settling these claims, the provincial and federal governments aim to show their commitment to advancing reconciliation, building trust and showing long-overdue respect and acknowledgment for the treaty relationship.

Hopeful for the future of the First Nation communities, Attachie says that retelling the history of their stolen land will create awareness about their past and hopes to continue the Oral Tradition to respect Indigenous knowledge that channels their true identity.

Listen to the episode of the 'Before the Peace' podcast that features Gerry Attachie on EnergeticCity.ca’s website.  [Tyee]

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