The history of the Metis settlements in Alberta and the ‘Famous Five’

Marcel Auger sits in his office with a drawing of Metis leader Louis Riel propped up in a chair beside him.

Auger is an Elder and has lived in the East Prairie Metis Settlement in Alberta since he was five years old.

He says his family’s first years were tough, but they prospered.

“When the settlements opened up, you could hunt anytime of the year and you could trap,” he says.

“It was a good opportunity for my family.”

Augers family settled on 16 hectares of land.

“We had cattle, hogs, chickens, horses, we had a lot of horses. We used them for work.”

Metis peoples of Alberta have one thing that no other Metis in Canada have: land.

That history goes back to 1895 to the St. Paul Des Metis community located about 200 km northeast of Edmonton.

The settlement was taken by the province in 1908 when the area was settled by French Canadians.

But in 1932, five Metis men created the Metis Association of Alberta.

Malcolm Norris, Jim Brady, Peter Tomkins, Joseph Dion and Felix Calliou became “The Famous Five” and are considered the founding fathers of the Alberta Metis Settlements.

They succeeded in lobbying the province to pass the Metis Population Betterment Act in 1938 which ordered that a committee be struck to work out which areas of the province would be assigned to the Metis.

That act created 12 Metis “colonies” across the province.

These colonies were mostly in the northern parts of Alberta, far from large cities or towns.

The name was officially changed to settlements in 1990.

But the settlements wouldn’t be permanent.

In the 1950’s, the province expropriated four settlements that just happened to be situated on land that had good soil for crops, or had oil reserves.

Herb Lehr, president of the Metis Settlements General Council and member of the Fishing Lake Metis Settlement, one of the eight remaining settlements in Alberta, says the province forcibly removed the people from those four settlements.

“We had our members who were taken out of those communities, they were forced at gunpoint in some cases to leave their homes,” said Lehr. “The minute they were out of their home, their homes were burnt in front of them.

“We were told back then that members were told that that land can’t sustain you. A very rich in agriculture capacity as well as rich in the ability for oil and gas production. And moved to communities that had less opportunity.”

The current eight settlements have a total size of half a million hectares, almost the size of Prince Edward Island. Sixty five hundred people live across the settlements.

The Metis Settlement Act was implemented in 1989, giving the settlement more power to self-govern.

The settlements had sued in 1968 for lost revenues. The legal battles took over twenty years, but they were awarded $310 million dollars in 1990, paid out over 17 years.

Today, Lehr said he wants the federal government to step up with money that he says they are obligated to pay after the 2016 Daniels decision from the Supreme Court stated that Canada had a fiduciary duty to Metis and non-status Indians.

“Thank you very much, province of Alberta for stepping up and being step daddy,” Lehr said. “That when no one else wanted to step up and take on responsibility for us, you did. And created a Metis Settlement Act and helped move us forward.”

Lehr was less praising of the federal government.

“You have fiduciary responsibility. You’re the daddy and at this current point in time, daddy is being not too good, a Daddy in stepping up. We refer to them as deadbeat dads.”

When APTN asked Marcel Auger if other Metis Communities in Canada could also get their own settlements, he says yes.

“Under section 35 of the Constitution, we are all the same. So the Metis People from other provinces were no different than we are here in Alberta,” he says.

“I think they could get land, if they fight for it, they could.”

Video Journalist / Edmonton

Chris Stewart has been in the media for 20 years. He has worked at CBC, Global and CTV as a news camera operator and editor. Chris joined APTN in 2012 in the Saskatoon Bureau and moved to APTN Edmonton bureau in 2015 as a Videojournalist.