Muskeg Lake Cree Nation Chief Kelly Wolfe and Bonnie Leask, member of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and Director of Indigenous Engagements at Coeuraj, reflect on the journey their community took to navigate the 1919 Soldier Settlement and make decisions, together, during a time of change.
Change is all around us.
For Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, this past year presented the opportunity for big change with the offer to settle the historic 1919 Soldier Settlement with the Government of Canada, after a century-long struggle. But before we jump to the present, let’s take a step back and tell the story of what brought us here.
In 1919, our people had a strong aptitude for agriculture and were tending to the land, providing for our families, and building up our community in the process. But while our land was abundant in resources, it lacked fences. Without these fences, our ability to cultivate the land and maintain our supply of cattle was compromised. So, the band went to the Indian Agent to request a loan, but instead, the Indian Agent manipulated the band into selling the land—almost 9000 acres for an unsuitably low fee—as a means to receive money for the fence. This was an outcome that the community neither asked for nor wanted, and a process that went against the conditions set in the Indian Act, breaching Canada’s legal duties to Muskeg Lake Cree Nation.
Fast forward to 2017, almost a decade after Muskeg Lake Cree Nation filed its first claim with the Government of Canada, the Government agreed to settle the claim and pay the community a total sum of $127 million for their past wrongdoing. And, it was only in 2021 that we were able to carry this process forward.
Which brings us to the present and to a community faced with a set of tough questions: Do we vote to accept the claim as it has been offered? And if we do…what are we going to do with $127 million dollars?
Ultimately, Muskeg Lake Cree Nation resoundingly voted to accept the Government’s offer and align on the creation of a shared community trust to safeguard the majority of the money awarded through the settlement, alongside providing each member with a moderate per capita payment.
On a practical level, ratifying both the settlement and the creation of a community trust required consensus. And on a human level, building this consensus required real alignment between people who are diverse in perspective, identity, and place.
So how did we get there, and what might you learn from this?
For a community to absorb change—the kind of change that positively impacts the quality of life for those most affected—the community itself needs to be behind the wheel. Why? Community members themselves know who they are and what they need. They know what they are experiencing and why they feel the way they feel. They also will know what challenges need to be overcome, and what futures they seek to cultivate.
When our community prepared for the ratification vote, we knew that there were a few non-negotiables given past pain points. First, the suggestion to create a shared community trust with settlement funds was discussed right at the outset. Yes, being upfront is essential to building trust, but it also enables proactive planning. When our community set up a trust in the past, people weren’t given the opportunity to advance their knowledge and financial literacy skills to fully understand the situation. This casted doubt on the value trusts could bring. Discussing the possibility of creating a shared trust on Day 1, meant that we could immediately spend time and resources equipping our members with knowledge about what a trust is and how it operates—and what will make this opportunity different from the last. Had this process been led by people not from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, these nuances may have been ignored.
"On a practical level, ratifying both the settlement and the creation of a community trust required consensus. And on a human level, building this consensus required real alignment between people who are diverse in perspective, identity, and place."
Navigating the 1919 Soldier Settlement claim provided both opportunities and challenges. Naturally, not everyone was aligned at the start. We heard from community members who wanted to divide the entire settlement money—all $127 million—as per capita members for each member, and we heard from those members who didn’t want a per capita payment at all.
Here’s the thing, people want to be heard but there is little value in reinforcing echo chambers. To break through walls of communication, we worked with facilitators, lawyers and financial experts to determine what could be the best path forward, alongside of course, creating informal and structured opportunities for members to communicate with one another. And, just as importantly, we provided opportunities for these different people to speak together, in the same conversation, regardless of their viewpoint. This spirit of collaboration is what guided us in 1919 and is still what guides us today.
To plan our engagement strategy, we had to ask ourselves: How are we going to engage and communicate across our membership, all 2400 members worldwide, to make sure we are reaching across every boundary and inviting everyone’s voice? And how are we going to do this in a short, intensive 6-month period?
"To break through walls of communication, we worked with facilitators, lawyers and financial experts to determine what could be the best path forward, alongside of course, creating informal and structured opportunities for members to communicate with one another."
We began by showing up where our community already shows up and ultimately ended up meeting with our community across more than 12 meetings. Our community’s Band Custom Election Act allows for our members to vote through an agreed-upon process, and engage across established touch points, like for instance, our bi-annual slate of meetings in urban areas where large concentrations of our members live. While COVID-19 hindered our ability to fully gather in-person, that didn’t stop us from hosting these meetings virtually as a means to connect and share information about the Soldier Settlement Claim, the process, and the options our community could vote on, as well as hold community Q&As, both on and off reserve.
To prepare for these community engagements, we also facilitated a workshop with Leadership where members were asked to collaboratively envision what a healthy future would be for Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and work back to understand what priorities need to be nurtured in the present to get there. Systems-wide issues such as education, housing, and wellness emerged as areas of focus and future investment, for our community. Having these priorities in-hand prior to on-the-ground community engagement meant that we could better facilitate conversations with our people about what a brighter future for Muskeg Lake Cree Nation could look like.
At each round of engagement we updated the membership about the status of the claim so there would be no surprises when outcomes were collectively decided. All members have access to an online portal that we actively updated as a knowledge hub with process updates and learning resources, and we physically sent mail-outs to members to share information as well. We also released a community-wide survey to understand what continued questions and gaps we had to bridge, to ensure that folks felt included, well-informed, and prepared; and that our process of engagement could be iterated to fit the dynamic needs of our community.
"And, just as importantly, we provided opportunities for these different people to speak together, in the same conversation, regardless of their viewpoint."
Change is messy. Humans are complex. Dealing with intergenerational trauma and the continued hand of colonialism needs to be handled with care—and it’s tough work that must go on.
If we do away with the politics and corporate models and lingo, it's the relationships that we’ve built with each other that will carry us forward when conversations become hard, emotions take over, and progress feels impossible. Decision-making is a labour of love, and a social contract between people and groups, as much as it is a rote procedure. And that’s what our community did. We created spaces for each other to talk, avenues for us to challenge our own assumptions, opportunities for our people to learn, and the collective capacity to make decisions together.
We walked away from this journey richer in our relationships and in collective ownership of a trust that houses $100 million—relationships that will fuel continued collaboration, and money that will be invested into building a healthier, more prosperous future for Muskeg Lake Cree Nation.