The Importance of Treaty Land Entitlement for Reconciliation with Laren Bill
Laren Bill, the Independent Chairperson at Implementation Monitoring Committee discusses how he got into the field of treaty land entitlement and how important it is for reconciliation. He also discusses his role as the holder of the sacred bundle at the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources.
Merrell-Ann Phare (00:03): This is Porcupine. I’m Merrell-Ann Phare.
Michael Miltenberger (00:05): And I’m Michael Miltenberger and we’re the hosts of the Porcupine Podcast.
Merrell-Ann Phare (00:08): Okay. So there’s this old joke that goes how do two porcupines hug?
Michael Miltenberger (00:12): Carefully.
Merrell-Ann Phare (00:12): And such is the story of reconciliation, at least so far. In this podcast series, we’re exploring reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. We’re looking at its funny, educational, touching, and difficult aspects, and also its prickly parts.
Meet Laren Bill
Merrell-Ann Phare (00:36): Okay. So we would like to introduce you to our guest today, Mr. Laren Bill, who is a very big deal. We’re very happy to have him on the podcast because he is deeply knowledgeable about what’s called treaty land entitlement. Laren is the Independent Chairperson of the Implementation Monitoring Committee, which was created under a long title, the Manitoba Framework Agreement on Treaty Land Entitlement. And he will talk to us about this, but I wanted to start by welcoming Laren and by making a full disclosure, that Laren is my brother-in-law. Hi, Laren, how are you doing?
Laren Bill (01:14): Hi. Good, good. I’m doing good.
Michael Miltenberger (01:16): I will jump in and say, welcome to Laren as well. When Laren was a young lad, he lived up in Fort Smith where I currently live. I knew his mother who was, was a very, very good nurse. And Laren was a much younger fella and he moved on, but he spent four formative years up here and we ran into each other again in Manitoba.
Merrell-Ann Phare (01:34): So Laren, what’s your background? Where are you from?
Laren Bill (01:39): I’m a Cree man from Pelican Lake First Nation. I’m a member of community there. A lot of my relatives are from there. My mum, I’m registered through Pelican Lake First Nation on my mom’s side. Leah Bill. I was born in Saskatoon about two hours, South of Pelican Lake First Nation. I’ve been raised fortunately with the teachings that my mum has passed on to me, which are based in our culture and our community.
Merrell-Ann Phare (02:13): I met you when you were entering into an education program that the organization that I, one of the organizations I’ve worked with I work with is The Center for Indigenous Environmental Resources. It had an education program and you were one of the first groups of students into that program, but you’ve also gone on to do other education. So can you give us a little bit of background on what your cause of what I’m leading to is how did you get into treaty land entitlement stuff?
Laren Bill (02:43): My goal was to further my education after high school and my mom actually found the newspaper clipping for the CIER program. And I was really drawn to it because of the fact that it included both the Indigenous scientific perspective, as well as the Western scientific perspective. And I say Indigenous scientific perspective because a lot of times that, that view or that perspective is not seen as a scientific worldview. So I was really drawn to that idea and that concept and applied to the program. And fortunately enough was accepted. And when I left Alberta, I was 18 years old. Also utilizing the, the opportunity that CIER provided, cause it gave you two years worth of credit hours towards your university degree. So I felt that it was important that I take advantage of that and finished my undergrad in native studies and geography and then after that as well, I felt like I needed to hone my skills more. And I was really drawn to the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba. And so I, I finished off a master’s degree in natural resource management.
Michael Miltenberger (04:05): So Laren, could I just ask you a question, back to your time at the Center for Indigenous Environmental Resources when you were there, you were studying, you had a foot in both worlds while you were there, you also became and still are the holder of a bundle, a sacred bundle that CIER students gathered together along with some elders as part of the growth of the CIER program, because you’ve been talking a lot about going on to education, but all the while you’ve been carrying that bundle and that responsibility on the traditional side.
Laren Bill (04:41): Yes. Most definitely. It was, it’s quite a long story about how it has been, happened to be that I’m now carrying the bundle again for CIER. Cause I was the original keeper of the, of the bundle for the CIER students. So the bundle is the sacred tools, sacred items that mostly comprise of medicines like the sweet grass, the sage, the tobacco and cedar. So the sacred four medicines are included in the bundle as well as eagle feathers by various elders that were teachers in the education training program, it was through a sweat lodge ceremony that [inaudible] hosted for the students. And at that ceremony, I was asked to be the keeper of the bundle and carry the pipe for the, for the group. And so with that responsibility, I was to, hold pipe ceremonies with the group whenever they had requested it and carry the feathers and the medicines on behalf of the group and, and take care of the bundle.
Merrell-Ann Phare (06:06): Every time CIER has an important meeting, we bring you in and you also do teachings for the staff and explain the teachings from the bundle. And we’re very grateful for you that you’re, you’re able to do that.
Michael Miltenberger (06:22): So Laren, Can we start with the most important question? What is TLE?
Laren Bill (06:25): Treaty land entitlement is, it’s trying to resolve the outstanding agreement that was reached in treaty. And that was for land, hence the, hence the term treaty land entitlement. So right from 1871, when the first treaty was signed to the 1920s to when the last treaty was signed, there was agreements of the total land quantums that each First Nation was entitled to or was supposed to receive.
Merrell-Ann Phare (07:02): And were those all, were those all the same amounts? Like was everybody?
Laren Bill (07:07): No.
Merrell-Ann Phare (07:07): Like for people who don’t know much about how that was done, that was, how was that done? How did they decide how much land everybody got?
Laren Bill (07:16): So it was based on the family sizes. For Treaty Six for a family of five, there was 160 acres and they call that what’s referred to as, the data first survey. So whenever they did this, the population counts and that was usually done by the surveyors, along with the Indian Agent, when they went into the communities to count how many people were in the community, they didn’t do the accurate population counts. In most cases, they would come in the Summer months and, and most, most of those times people would be out on the land harvesting for the, for the Winter. So in some cases they would have either half the population there or only a quarter of the population there. And so what resulted was a, a major, what they call a shortfall of acreage. Acerage map.
Merrell-Ann Phare (08:09): Have people been able to fix that shortfall since then?
Laren Bill (08:12): Well, they did, but it didn’t begin to happen really negotiations until the 1970s. There was always this understanding that, from the First Nations perspective, that there was this inaccurate acreage count because they knew that their full population and their membership on the list was not accounted for. And remember too, this is just shortly after like the 1960s, when First Nations were allowed to have legal counsel.
Merrell-Ann Phare (08:44): That’s right.
Laren Bill (08:45): Represent them in negotiation. So that’s why you have this huge time lag from 1870 to 1920 when the last, 1920s, when the last treaties were signed. These negotiations didn’t really start till 1970s.
Merrell-Ann Phare (08:59): Because before that it was, it was illegal to have legal counsel help you try to get back land.
Laren Bill (09:05): Exactly or represent any First Nation issue, what could be a claim against the Indian Agent that was you know, treating people wrongly or whatever the case may be. They just weren’t allowed to have any legal representation whatsoever until late 1960s, mid sixties.
Michael Miltenberger (09:24): So Laren, there’s a point here that just stands out for me, that’s, 140, I just did the math. It’s 149 years since Treaty One was signed. And here we are in 2020, and we’re still talking about trying to sort out treaty land entitlement. Your job, it seems to me, is very difficult, 149 years in, the patience of the First Nations people is beyond understanding. It’s amazing that it’s still going on.
Laren Bill (09:52): Yes.
New Speaker (09:52): How do you manage to keep this thing moving forward without getting really, really irate?
Laren Bill (09:59): Well, it’s definitely a challenge on, on behalf of the First Nations. I mean, when I meet with them, you can sense the frustration in their voices, in their body language. And there’s no doubt there’s a definite anger there, but with the resilience of the First Nations communities and the steadfastness that they have with trying to resolve this outstanding claim for our lands, they have extreme patience. Under the Manitoba Framework Agreement, 21 years into that agreement, and we’re only 50% complete, just over 50% complete, after 21 years.
Merrell-Ann Phare (10:37): You’re saying, that from the original Treaty signing, First Nations would have gotten a little bit of the land that they were promised, probably just their original little reserve,
Laren Bill (10:47): Right.
Merrell-Ann Phare (10:48): And then over time, dribs and drabs of land goes through, but there’s a big gap where a lot of land didn’t get transferred. And the whole time. You have development happening and settlers coming out and.
Laren Bill (11:00): Right.
Merrell-Ann Phare (11:00): And all of that. And so then now in 1997 there was an, another agreement is that that agreement is how would you describe in plain language, what that agreement was trying to do?
Laren Bill (11:15): The Manitoba Framework Agreement was trying to reconcile the inadequate acreage amounts and also connected to the Agreement is, uh, dollar amounts for capital investment as well as to purchase lands that are privately held based on a willing seller, willing buyer basis. Like the willing seller being those individuals could be farmers or individual land owners who are willing to sell their land and then the First Nations being the buyer to purchase those lands.
Merrell-Ann Phare (11:48):Traditionally, Treaty Land would come out of Crown Land, the land that wasn’t privately owned by anybody. And, but so much of that Crown Land is gone now.
Laren Bill (11:58): Yes.
Merrell-Ann Phare (11:59): So instead of giving them lands that, to fulfill the treaty, because there wasn’t any left, they gave them some money so that they could go buy land that was for sale. And then that land would end up becoming their treaty land, right?
Laren Bill (12:11): In the South, that could definitely be said, whereas in the North that isn’t such a hindrance. However, the hindrance is you have the provinces creating interests on those lands. Third party interests…
Merrell-Ann Phare (12:26): Like mining and things like that.
Laren Bill (12:28): That could range from mining, forestry, outfitters, cabins, lodges, gravel.
Merrell-Ann Phare (12:35): And so what’s the impact of the, of the province doing that.
Laren Bill (12:38): Essentially it makes it more challenging for those lands to be set apart as a reserve because the First Nations have to resolve those interests, prior to Canada accepting those lands to be set apart as reserve.
Merrell-Ann Phare (12:53): And how successful are they in resolving those?
Laren Bill (12:56): The First Nations have the responsibility to go and meet with these third party interest holders to negotiate an agreement. That’s what the First Nation has been trying to do over the past 21 years. And it’s been a very slow process. I mean, a lot of the land that has been set apart to date has been those parcels where there has been very few issues.
Merrell-Ann Phare (13:20): How many steps are in the process to, to get a land through to reserve?
Laren Bill (13:27): Well, when I worked with the Treaty Land Title Committee, they had created a step-by-step, like every single detailed step in the land transfer and reserve creation process. And that chart, if you were to take it, it would wrap around the entire boardroom.
Merrell-Ann Phare (13:45): Oh.
Laren Bill (13:45): That boardroom could seat 12 people.
Merrell-Ann Phare (13:48): So now it becomes very clear why after 150, how many years did you say Michael?
Michael Miltenberger (13:53): 149.
New Speaker (13:53): 149 years, only 50% of treaty land entitlement has been actually that commitment has only been met 50%.
Laren Bill (14:04): So now we’re getting down to the parcels that have a lot of those third party interests and more challenging to resolve like mining claims, hydro easement,aggregates, lands, what’s called lands physically required for hydro development. These are some of the ones that are still outstanding to be resolved. So my job in this process is when there is a dispute amongst the parties and that being entitlement First Nations, Canada, and Manitoba, they submit a referral to this table, the Implementation Monitoring Committee to assess and review and make sure that all the facts relevant to the case or this, the issue or matter in dispute is thoroughly looked at and provide recommendations to the parties on how to resolve it.
Michael Miltenberger (14:56): So let me ask you, Laren. There’s a, there’s a broader question in my mind here. The tactics are clear, it seems like you’re stuck in a system which could not be called good faith bargaining. We now have with the Liberal government, a commitment to reconciliation. Is it too early to say that that has had any effect on this, these institutions and structures and processes that are embedded?
Laren Bill (15:26): I haven’t seen a large, like drastic change. However, I have seen some improvements. Currently, I see this province looking at the process of urban reserves and trying to assess how that process can benefit First Nations as well as the greater area. So I see this government looking at the issue, whereas in the past, that was never on the radar in terms of, okay, what really is holding up these lands from being set apart as reserve in urban centers? Why do we only have a handful set apart as reserve here in Manitoba? Whereas our neighbors in Saskatchewan, they have over 72 urban reserves and more on the books, slated to be set apart this year.
Merrell-Ann Phare (16:17): And have they seen benefits that have accrued as a result of setting up urban reserves?
Laren Bill (16:21): Oh, most definitely. Not only is it providing jobs and economic opportunities, the spinoffs in terms of just the ability of those First Nations to, First Nation members to purchase gas, as well as other services and work on reserve in a, in an urban setting.
Michael Miltenberger (16:45): Laren, we’ve, you and I and Merrell-Ann have worked with André Le Dressay from Tulo. And he has a term, the bungee economy that every dollar that you make on an urban reserve, the majority of that gets spent in all our surrounding businesses. Would you agree with that type of assessment?
Laren Bill (17:11): Well, it’s a huge opportunity. I mean, for those surrounding businesses, to look at those numbers and take a step back and see really what the benefits are and definitely where you have those urban reserves, you see that money flowing to those outside businesses that are not on reserve. For example, here in Winnipeg, we have the Long Plains First Nation and their Petro-Canada station. It’s one of the largest fuel distributor in Canada, out of all the Petro-Cans, in, across Canada. And that speaks to the First Nations’ buying power.
Merrell-Ann Phare (17:50): And I presume too that other non-Indigenous, non-First Nation folks, I know I’ve purchased gas there, I’m not non-Indigenous. It shows a viable business right in the city that helps the First Nation directly.
Laren Bill (18:02): Yeah.
Michael Miltenberger (18:04): 149 years to do the first 50%. Do you see another 49 years? One of your successors will be sitting there saying we’ve just finally finished or do you see a speeded up process so everybody can get back to work and living their lives and not sitting at tables in negotiation?
Laren Bill (18:25): Well, I come from a very optimistic point of view and would like to think that treaty land entitlement would be a thing of the past in 30 years. I always think of this process, at the current rate, won’t be fully complete for another 30 years. And that’s only based on having 20 years to complete 50%. And now we’re getting to the really challenging parcels. And that’s going to take at least three to four years just to come to a negotiated agreement on those third party interests, and then going through the land transfer reserve creation process, which can range from six to eight years. So right there, you’re looking at 10, 14 years just for those few parcels there. And then you add on another 15 years for the other parcels. So right there, it could easily be 30 years from now.
Merrell-Ann Phare (19:22): So what kind of leadership, who needs to do what, in terms of the powers that be in order for that to not happen, for it to be done much faster?
Laren Bill (19:32): Well, it always comes down to political will. Every major issue that, or even major commitment that’s made, been made has always come down to political will. When the governments that were in power at the day, during the time they could committed to 150,000 acres per year for four years.
Merrell-Ann Phare (19:57): When was this?
Laren Bill (19:57): I believe it was in 2011 that they had made that commitment. And it was the two levels of government, the federal and provincial governments of the day. You saw a concerted effort and the pressure on the provincial and federal governments to try to reach those numbers, Out of the four years, I think they were able to reach or very close to reaching, I think they made it 145,000 acres in one year. But those previous years to that there was very little acerages being set apart for reserve. If there’s more emphasis placed on making a concerted effort to, to resolve some of these longstanding issues, I think that would definitely help the process.
Merrell-Ann Phare (20:42): What at the municipal level, right at the ground level, sometimes treaty land entitlement is, is seen as it can be sometimes, threatening to municipal interests. I think if First Nations partner with their municipal the, the municipalities in their territories, you could see some allies or some supporters for proceeding with, with TLE to, to potentially mutual benefit, if there’s partnerships. Do you, have you, do you see that happen? Or am I just wildly optimistic?
Laren Bill (21:21): Well, there’s definitely some partnerships happening between First Nations and municipalities. You see, uh, St. Clements, there was just another urban reserve created by a Peguis in the RM of St. Clements. Just last year, Gamblers First Nation working with the city of Brandon and negotiating their services agreement and that reserve being created. There are others out there that are working on agreements, but they haven’t been signed off at this point. But I think you, you do acknowledge a key point in this, in the process, and that is those service agreements that need to be developed and agreed upon by both the First Nation and the municipalities,
Merrell-Ann Phare (22:07): Right, because sometimes the, sometimes the municipality is concerned that if a reserve is set up right near one of their towns, that eventually the First Nation is going to ask for an extension of the water services or electricity or something like that, fire services, and that that’ll be a cost to the municipality and they don’t know how that’ll get recovered, right? So it, it, that sometimes it’s something as straightforward as that, that that gets in the way.
Speaker 3 (22:39): Some agreements, languish, and languish for years and years. And that, unfortunately, is a result of that relationship not being there fully and leaving it to legal counsel to try to negotiate back and forth when cooler minds usually prevail, when you have the two folks that’s sort of have the common vision coming together and, and looking at, okay, what’s the, what’s the true objective here? And what’s the longterm vision by having these lands set apart? And of course that’s economic development and, and opportunities for First Nation members to, to live in and reside in the area with those rights in place.
Michael Miltenberger (23:26): I’m just looking at a quote from Justice Murray Sinclair: “Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships. There are no shortcuts.” It seems to me what you’re talking about is that very basic relationship. Once they realize that their, and they have they, they can be friends and work together then all of a sudden these other, these other obstacles that have appeared over the years tend to fall away.
Merrell-Ann Phare (23:56): So I have seen on my Twitter feed a “#LandBack,” and I know that land is critical to all of these discussions about reconciliation, but can you explain for me, why is that? What’s the connection between having treaty land be fulfilled and reconciliation?
Laren Bill (24:20): Well, I’ve always had a challenge with even the word reconciliation myself, because what it means to me is to right the wrongs of the past, and that can’t always happen. Especially in cases where there’s that longterm damage that’s occured. And specifically, I’m speaking to where some of the chiefs in the communities were wrongfully tried and hanged, and the massacres that occurred, like there’s no way to, right those wrongs. However, there’s attempts being made to acknowledge those wrongdoings. I mean, I see that as part of reconciliation, and that’s all about being aware that those things happened and continuing to educate people about, and that’s when I say people, I mean, the greater public educating the public about, and not forgetting that those things happened, not just sweeping them aside. Because that’s what tends to happen is we hear about it for a few years and then, then we don’t hear about anything until it comes to a head again. And then we start hearing about all the wrongdoings that, that occurred. For reconciliation to occur in treaty land entitlement, it’s not until the last acre is set apart as reserve that, in my eyes, reconciliation won’t be achieved until that date.
Merrell-Ann Phare (26:00): We’re all treaty people. So it’s fulfilling a, an agreement that binds us and Indigenous and First Nation folks. So it’s critical for all of our wellbeings, I think, that we move forward to do that.
Laren Bill (26:14): There’s also an outstanding perspective. And you still hear this today after 150 years, the elders’ view of, of treaty is that medallion where you see the First Nation person and the soldier shaking hands, at the foot, you see that hatchet, that’s buried that from the elders’ perspectives and what they always tell me is that that represented six inches into the ground. And that’s what they promised only to the, to the settlers. And that was also to represent the depth of the plow, not everything else that was underneath the ground. And so that oral, oral understanding from the elders from the oral history, needs to be reconciled with the Natural Resource Transfer Agreement and the outstanding taking up of the land, from the elders’ perspective, should have never been done.
Michael Miltenberger (27:14): So we’re back to the issue of the transition from an adversarial system, the one that we’re currently in, the status quo, which Laren, you and I, and Merrell-Ann have heard chiefs and mayors say it’s not good enough anymore, it’s not working, to a time of collaboration and you can’t change the past, but you can, can you change the future? Can you make it better?
Laren Bill (27:43): What I’d like to see for the future is that there is less adversarial approaches to these discussions and looking to the future and focusing on the benefits, as opposed to what’s what people are losing. Like, what are people losing when all this TLE is being set apart for reserve land? When you look at the total amount of acreage, it’s only 1% of all of Manitoba that’s being set apart as reserve. And that’s inclusive of that 1.1 million acres of that total acreage amount. So there’s only more to be gained where those communities like Long Plain, Swan Lake Sagkeeng, where they developed in Pegasus, where they develop those parcels of land for economic development purposes, you see them definitely benefiting. And why can’t all 63 First Nations benefit?
Michael Miltenberger (28:46): I think you nailed it earlier on when you said all things that have happened that have been positive and good, are because of political will. I guess, to be fair, everything that’s happened bad as well is because of political will, but looking to the future, it’s the political will. And I think you hit that one right on the head.
Laren Bill (29:07): There just needs to be more creative thought into how to remove these perceived intractable positions. I mean, we just went through one history where the parties were able to agree that this issue is easily resolvable if the the issue is retracted and that, that basically freed up close to 5,000 acres and that one issue, that held up five different parcels.
Merrell-Ann Phare (29:36): And that was the government that was a government retracting, their previous position?
Merrell-Ann Phare (29:40): Yes.
Speaker 2 (29:42): A Crown Government, yeah.
Laren Bill (29:43): Yes. So in terms of taking a hard look at these these issues, I think, I think there needs to be a greater emphasis on what in fact are they holding on to? And what, what really is going to be lost?
Michael Miltenberger (30:00): You indicated what they’re hanging on to, the intractable problems that have been created by that approach. Why?
Laren Bill (30:07): First Nations are not seen as capable of being able to administer their own laws on their own land. Governments need to look at First Nations as governments. First Nation goverments, with the ability to create their own laws, create their own institutions, create their own processes to deal with, or work with these third party interests, whether it be a mining company or lodge holder you know, gravel operator. The First Nations can, and have been across Canada, creating their own processes to allow for development to occur on reserve lands. And that’s unfortunately, how these issues become so cumbersome in the process because First Nations are not seen as capable of being able to administer their own laws to accommodate those interests.
Merrell-Ann Phare (31:03): So if they were treated as governments and their laws were accepted as valid, which they are in law, but it seems like in practice, it’s not that easy, people still push back. Individuals can, can support…
Speaker 3 (31:21): Yes.
Merrell-Ann Phare (31:22): Conversations about how to move that forward and which elected officials should we get in that’ll support moving forward on treaty land entitlement. And do we have conversations with our neighbors with an open-mind and with a view to learning about something that not too many people know a lot about. So we’re very glad that you were able to come onto the podcast and to share what is I know a very complicated process but you’ve managed to, to explain it in a way that I think is really, really clear to us where some of the problems are, but also some of the, the hopeful, hopeful steps and changes that you’re, you’re seeing underway. So thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Michael Miltenberger (32:07): Thank you, Lauren. It’s been a pleasure.
Laren Bill (32:09): Thank you. I appreciate the invitation.
Merrell-Ann Phare (32:14): The Porcupine Podcast is produced by myself, Merrell-Ann Phare and Michael Miltenberger. We’d also like to thank our co-producer and audio technician, Hannah Gehman, and our writer, Deborah Bowers, thanks to you for listening to Porcupine Podcast. We hope you return and please feel free to rate and subscribe. Bye for now.