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Alberta's Indians and the Second World War

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James Dempsey

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and CountryDiefenbaker was reminding the House that outdated laws still barred Indians from taverns, and they faced other inequalities because they were wards of the government, and did not have full citizenship rights, even though they wore the uniform of their country.

Later the same year the Hon. M.J. Coldwell questioned Crerar about the purchase of 2211 acres of land for military purposes from the Stoney Point Indian Reserve. In 1827 the reserve had comprised 12,343 acres, but through surrenders or enfranchisement of band members, 5873 acres had been disposed of, leaving only 6470 acres. Coldwell said the present sale would further reduce the reserve's size. The land was bought for the Department of National Defence at $J 5 per acre, and came to a total of $50,000. When the Indians were consulted on the purchase they voted 59 to 13 not to sell, stating that the treaty expressly stated that the reserve land was to be owned by the band for all time. Coldwell asked how the government could obtain the land in view of the band's negative response, and Crerar replied that "the Department of Justice expressed the opinion that the government had the right to acquire property under the War Measures Act."53

This action recalls a similar situation during the First World War when land was obtained for non-Indian farmers by forcing the sale of reserve lands. The action two decades later may have been handled in a completely legal manner, without any underhanded measures, but the result was still the same; the spirit of the treaties was overruled in favour of government policies that were only of importance during the war years, and had no significance for the future.

In addition during the war period, the Hon. Mr. Douglas questioned the government about its policy of withholding band trust funds, and the interest earned from these funds. Crerar once again defended the government, and replied that it was not necessary to secure the consent of the Indians to withhold funds, or interest on band funds, unless there was a prior understanding to the contrary. Indian agents were entrusted with the power to decide whether the Indians in question needed the funds at the time. Crerar backed this policy by presenting a hypothetical case in point:

If $500.00 is coming to an Indian as the result of a fur catch, and he gets that $500.00, I venture to say that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred that the money will disappear within thirty days. I can assure my Hon.. friend that it is the desire of those administering Indian affairs to deal equitably and justly, though perhaps at times it must be done firmly, with the Indians under their administration.54

His statement concerning the handling of Indian finances showed that the paternalistic attitude held by the government towards natives, and their ability to control their own funds, was still firmly in place. Although it was a time of emergency, Indians had already proven they would support the war effort financially. But if government controls remained intact, the possibility of equal rights for natives would be severely limited. They would remain in an unclarified position, being wards of the government, yet expected to take the responsibilities of citizens.

Douglas replied to Crerar that if natives were to be treated as British subjects, and therefore had the responsibilities of citizens such as military conscription, then should they not also enjoy the rights of citizens? He added that the franchise should be extended to them as well as the privileges of British subjects. Indians should not be expected to pay the price and accept the responsibility without receiving some of the privileges.55 These points, expressed by Douglas, would later develop into a serious examination of the position of Indians in Canada after the war. However, Crerar responded to Douglas' statement by saying Indians did not want the franchise at the time, though it might become compulsory in the future. He also mentioned that one of the major stumbling blocks to an agreement was the Indian idea that they were a nation, or group of nations within a nation.56 This belief is still present today in discussions between the government and native organizations.

Like other Canadians in the service, Indian veterans were eligible for benefits under the Veteran's Land Act, which was passed by an Order-in-Council on 13 April 1945. The Director of ..Indian Affairs was allowed to grant up to $2320 to an Indian veteran who settled on Indian reserve lands. The money was to be used for a variety of improvements for the veteran's home. These improvements were: the purchase of essential building materials and other costs of construction; clearing and other preparation of the land for cultivation; purchase of essentials for livestock and machinery; purchase of machinery or equipment essential to forestry; purchase of commercial fishing equipment; purchase of trapping or fur farming equipment, but not breeding stock, not exceeding $850; purchase of essential household equipment not exceeding $250.

Indian veterans also would have occupational rights to lands either vacant or improved as long as they were located within the boundaries of a reserve. A merit of settlement in the amount of $6000 would be granted, and would not be required to be repaid.57

By August 1946, 115 Indian veterans had been located on reserves, and it was expected that 10 per cent of the Indian veterans would use the Veterans Land Act.58 The Indian Affairs Department also assumed responsibility for the administration of all estates of deceased soldiers by helping their dependents to obtain pensions and allowances.59

In 1946, the government also stated that Indian veterans were entitled to the same treatment, benefits and privileges available to any other veteran. Natives living off the reserve could apply to the local District Administration Department of Veterans Affairs. Natives planning to settle on reserves would notify their Indian agent and he would contact the local Regional Supervisor of the Veterans Land Act regarding their application for government grants and loans. Handling of the payments would be done by the Indian Affairs Department.60

The requirement of going through the Indian agent became a point of contention. Alberta's Indian veterans claimed that they were denied war benefits because they had to deal with their Indian agent rather than directly with Veteran's Affairs. The Indian veterans also felt that Indian agents did not always pass on necessary information, and they could not find out on their own because of the law which forbade them to travel between reserves. George Monson, western regional director for veterans, said that any veterans who thought they should have received benefits should visit the Veterans Affairs office. He did not understand the confusion because Indians who settled on reserves received a grant and the low interest mortgage programme, while those who settled off the reserves received the grant formula based on individual needs. Joseph Littlechild, representing the Alberta group, replied that Indians who moved off the reserves lost their treaty rights and status.61

Notes

53. Debates, 3rd Session, 19th parliament, 2 July 1942, p. 3861.

54. Debates, 4th Session, 19th parliament, 23 July 1943, p. 5318.

55. Ibid., 5319.

56. Ibid.

57. Debates, 2nd Session, 20th Parliament, 16 August 1946, p. 4914.

58. Canada. Department of Mines and Resources, Annual Report for 1946, p. 209.

59. Canada. Department of Mines and Resources, Annual Report for 1945, p. 161.

60. IMR, Vol. 9, No. 4, [April 1946].

61. Calgary Herald, 22 October 1981.

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