Bradley Desjarlais started hunting when he was about seven years old. His parents would send him out to find food and he would return with small game, such as rabbits and ducks. He has been a subsistence hunter ever since, raising his children on wild game while passing down his skills.
Mr. Desjarlais, 50, is from Fishing Lake First Nation, about 230 kilometres east of Saskatoon, in Treaty 4 territory. He said it is increasingly difficult to exercise his treaty rights in Saskatchewan, which has been selling its Crown land and shrinking his accessible hunting grounds. And people exercising their treaty rights on Crown land and in other parts of rural Saskatchewan face hostility from non-Indigenous residents, he said.
“All my life, I’ve been persecuted by local farmers,” he said. “I‘ve been yelled at, I’ve had wardens called on me, RCMP called – that’s just been the norm for 40 years.”
But now, Mr. Desjarlais has connected with a small group of Saskatchewan farmers who are bolstering treaty rights by offering Indigenous peoples safe access to their privately owned land. Soon, Mr. Desjarlais will be hunting elk west of North Battleford, on property owned by those participating in the Treaty Land Sharing Network. Members of the project, which is led by women, have agreed to welcome Indigenous peoples to hunt, gather and practise ceremony – largely without restrictions – on the land they farm.
After a lifetime of being chased away, Mr. Desjarlais is still wrestling with the idea that he is welcome on private property.
“It is hard to believe,” he said. “I’ll get used to it sooner or later.”
Indigenous peoples who hunt for white-tailed deer for food or gather sage for medicine say they have felt increasingly unsafe in rural Saskatchewan since Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man, was fatally shot by Gerald Stanley, who farmed near North Battleford, in 2016. A jury found Mr. Stanley not guilty of second-degree murder. The Saskatchewan government has since pushed to beef up trespassing legislation, so someone accessing land that belongs to another person would have to seek the owner’s permission first, rather than the owner having to post “no trespassing” signs.
Mary Culbertson is the Treaty Commissioner of Saskatchewan and helped guide the farmers as they formed the land-sharing network. She believes the farmers and ranchers banded together not out of guilt but because of a realization of their treaty responsibilities.
“They are fulfilling the spirit and intent of what treaty was supposed to be,” she said. “Sharing the land. Being partners.”
So far, more than 4,616 hectares are available for use in the Treaty Land Sharing Network, which spans Treaty 4 and Treaty 6 territories. Indigenous peoples can search the network’s directory by land location and characteristics, such as whether a parcel contains heritage sites, sweat rocks, berries or is appropriate for hunting.
The network, which officially launched in July, contains about 30 locations. People from other provinces, including Alberta and Ontario, have since reached out about expanding the project, but for now, organizers are focusing on Saskatchewan.
Farmers and ranchers participating in the project post signs on their land, sending a message to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
“It is a very public stand that these people have taken,” Ms. Culbertson said.
Philip Brass, an instructor in land-based learning who was raised on the Peepeekisis Cree Nation, was involved in the preliminary discussions that led to the network. To him, the signs are an important part of the concept: By putting them up, farmers risk alienating neighbours who may not be so welcoming of Indigenous peoples, he said.
“If you want to consider yourself an ally, you need to put some skin in the game.”
Members of the Treaty Land Sharing Network are expected to be all in when it comes Indigenous peoples exercising their rights. The landowners cannot participate if, for example, they welcome berry-pickers but not hunters.
“True reconciliation isn’t necessarily always supposed to feel good,” Mr. Brass said. “It is supposed to feel like a loss of power. It is supposed to challenge your notions of property ownership. It is supposed to be a shift in power dynamics.”
While he believes the project is moving in the right direction, he is reserving judgment on its success. “I will celebrate it when I see it in a tangible, systemic change,” he said.
Indigenous peoples wanting access to land through the network are asked to reach out to the participating property owners first. The network’s organizers instituted this provision at the suggestion of Indigenous advisers who noted Indigenous hunters and gatherers would feel more comfortable accessing private property in rural Saskatchewan after giving the landowners a heads up.
Mary Smillie and her husband, Ian McCreary, are among the landowners participating in the Treaty Land Sharing Network. The intent of treaties, she said, was to share: Pioneers could grow crops while Indigenous peoples could gather plants, hunt and host ceremonies – on the same piece of land.
Ms. Smillie was unaware of the wealth of medicinal plants on her farm until she and her husband hosted a land-sharing event on Aug. 9, 2020, the fourth anniversary of Mr. Boushie’s death. Indigenous knowledge-keepers quickly identified more than 30 plants that were valuable to them but not the farmers, she said.
“We can easily continue to farm, make a living farming, and share this land.”
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