Muskeg Lake Cree Nation Chief Kelly Wolfe and Bonnie Leask, member of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and former 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.
What led us here: The 1919 Soldier Settlement
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?
Where we stand today: Moving forward with a shared community trust
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?
Keys to making decisions through collaboration
Understand the context and let the community drive
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.