The water was fast, relentless.
In a matter of days, the flooding of Peguis First Nation, believed to be the worst the community in Manitoba’s Interlake has ever seen, displaced about 1,600 people and destroyed hundreds of homes. Peguis has 3,521 members who usually live on reserve and 6,504 members outside the reserve.
Manitoba’s largest First Nation community is no stranger to flooding — residents have been forced from their homes several times over the past several decades by rising waters — but that wasn’t always the case.
A few generations ago, the community lived on prime farmland just north of Winnipeg, away from the flood-prone delta on the Fisher River, about 100 miles north of the state capital where it is today.
And in a sense, the story of how they were pushed so far north into Manitoba’s Interlake region — a movement motivated by racism and propelled by dubious mood — is Manitoba’s story, said Niigaan Sinclair, a professor of indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba.
“You can map Manitoba through the relocations of indigenous peoples. So, unfortunately, Peguis’ story is not abnormal,” said Sinclair, who is also a member of the First Nation.
“But it’s especially terrible for myself because I witness my relatives every year… [a] enormous amount of material damage, their livelihoods are under constant pressure and the fact that it is simply impossible to create a way of life… in this area that we are forced to live on.”
In the early 1900s, the land just northeast of Winnipeg was known as the St. Peter’s Reserve – a precursor to today’s Peguis First Nation. Today, the area is home to the town of Selkirk.
The people of St. Peter’s were successful farmers, said Karen Froman, an assistant professor at the University of Winnipeg who teaches Indigenous history.
But the notion persisted among settlers that First Nations were incapable of using the land properly.
“There was pressure and resentment on the part of the settler population to remove indigenous peoples from productive, valuable land,” said Froman, Mohawk of Six Nations of the Grand River.
“It’s racism, pure and simple.”
As Selkirk’s growing nearby community experienced an economic boom, government officials began denouncing the reserve as “a drain on the district’s prosperity,” she said.
So, in 1907, they devised a plan to surrender the reserve land — though the folks at St. Peter’s were “absolutely against it,” said Froman.
A ‘fake’ voice
By all accounts, the vote on whether the First Nation would cede its land to the government was “pretty shady,” she said.
The vote took place in September, when many members were hunting, fishing and catching, and was scheduled for short notice, Froman said. Many residents of St. Peter could not fit into the small schoolhouse where the vote was held.
The vote itself was also confusing, with an official at one point telling voters to pick a side based on who wanted $90 — not who wanted to relinquish their land — though it was unclear which tier people were even in. had to stand, she said.
Still, said Froman, the outcome was close: 107 in favour, 98 against. It was not a majority of the 233 eligible voters. But the government decided it had won the majority of the vote, although there was no record of who voted, Sinclair said.
“You can’t call that a vote. That was a sham,” he said. “The land has been stolen, period.”
The St. Peter’s Reserve was dissolved and the people were forced from where they had been for generations to a new place chosen by the government, Froman said.
A new home – for some
What awaited the newly founded Peguis First Nation – called after chef Peguiswho had led a group of Saultaux people to establish a settlement at Netley Creek and later at St. Peter’s — was a far cry from the thriving community they once knew, Froman said.
There were no houses, no schools, no churches, not even roads.
“They took a huge step backwards when they moved,” said Bill Shead, whose great-grandfather, William Asham, was a former head of St. Peter’s, who was at the meeting when the vote was held.
It was “bush, poor land – a bit swampy and no real big trees.”
But others refused to leave, Froman said.
Some First Nations people who kept on doing business releasement (a process of giving up First Nation status under Indian law), while some Métis people thesis requested in an effort to hold onto their land. But many eventually lost it anyway, she said.
Others flatly refused to leave, instead facing legal repercussions.
Trevor Greyeyes said this happened to his family, who are from the nearby former Netley Creek First Nation, which the government combined with St. Peter’s Reserve to save money after Treaty 1 was signed.
That decision meant their lands were included in the illegal surrender, though they occupied the swampland until they were arrested in 1931 for trespassing. At a trial the following year, they were given two choices: move to the new Peguis First Nation site, or go to jail.
“As you can imagine, there were quite a few people saying, ‘Well, I’m moving,'” Greyeyes said.
“There were some who refused. So those men were jailed.”
Although the country’s surrender was declared invalid in 1911, that ruling was ignored by government officials who insisted that the First Nation move, Froman said.
“The rationale and explanation given by officials, and that’s actually been incorporated as part of the settler mentality, was the lie, the fiction that the people of St. Peter’s were willingly selling their land and leaving,” she said.
“The people did not go voluntarily, despite the historical story… that people bowed their heads more or less obediently and shuffled silently to the bush.”
But for all that happened, the people of St. Peter’s — now Peguis — held no grudges, Shead said.
“They went on with their lives and rebuilt a community, in very difficult circumstances, which has blossomed,” he said, recalling his own grandparents’ home built with logs from the forest on the new reserve.
And they didn’t stop there. In 2009, they voted to settle land claims worth $126 million as compensation for the land stolen more than a century earlier.
“They won—that’s how I see it anyway,” Shead said.
†[They used] their ability and their shrewdness to get an education and seek compensation for past mistakes, using our system, education and the rule of law.”
But today, the community is still dealing with the aftermath of moving to such a flood-prone area, Chief Glenn Hudson said, reiterating his call for long-term measures to limit flooding in the area.
“We deserve better, especially when our land was illegally taken from us,” Hudson said.
“People need to understand and know the history of how our country has been ripped off from us.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Ruth Christie, elder and Peguis First Nation member—not just raising awareness about her community’s history today, but ensuring the stories are preserved for tomorrow.
“The elderly who knew these stories are dying now,” Christie said.
“If the young are not interested in the history of their people…that history will be lost.”