First Nation farmers were controlled by Indian Agents, Kule Centre webinar told

    Myrna Kostash, Chelsea Vowel

    Marco Levytsky, NP-UN Western Bureau Chief.

    After being moved to reservations, First Nations had little control over their own lives, participants at a webinar sponsored by the Kule Folklore Centre and the Ukrainian Resource and Development Centre were told October 20.

    “(White) Settlers had little to no regulations on their farming, First Nations were micromanaged officially through the Indian Act from 1876 on, directly after the creation of the reserves on the Prairies,” said Chelsea Vowel, a Métis writer and lawyer from near Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta, whose work focuses on language, gender identity, and cultural resurgence.

    She was speaking at the second in the series of events focusing on land and land-based practices and relationships organized by the Indigenous Ukrainian Relationship Building Initiative.

    “Indian Agents controlled all First Nations funds, could lease lands to white farmers unilaterally for any amount, and could carry out farming experiments. White farmers benefited from cheap access to First Nation lands and labourers, and many resented the successes of their First Nations neighbours, and had the political power to petition for change,” she explained.

    “All purchases had to be out of pocket by individual First Nations, because Band funds were controlled by the Commissioner. Many First Nations ended up as labourers on their own reserves on lands leased to settlers or on Greater Production farms that were not leased, but still run by settlers…Forbidden from speaking their language, spirituality controlled (illegal under Indian Act still), couldn’t sell what they grew or butcher own animals, every aspect of life controlled.

    Métis, on the other hand, did not have treaties, were not guaranteed any farming support or supplies from any governments but were often managed in similar ways that prevented successful Métis agrarianism.

    In 1938 with the passage of the Metis Population Betterment Act, Métis were granted land by the Alberta government, called Settlements, and encouraged to farm.

    “Initially, who could live on the Settlements was based on economic destitution – you had to be poor to live on what remains the only government-administrated Métis land. Farming for market was nearly impossible to do, as they had no collateral for loans to buy equipment and supplies to compete with white farmers, the Social Credit government was unwilling to provide any resources or infrastructural support,” noted Vowel.

    She added that the issues affecting Canada’s Indigenous people are systemic and require systemic solutions.

    “This does not mean we cannot take individual actions, but it does mean we have to have a two-pronged approach, minimally. One, we must change our own practices, and two, we must push for wider, systemic change.”

    Vowel was joined at the webinar, entitled “otâkosîhk mîna anohc: вчора і сьогодні: Yesterday and Today On These Lands” (Cree, Ukrainian and English), by Ukrainian Canadian author Myrna Kostash, who spoke about what she learned from re-examining her grandparents’ lives in the course of writing her forthcoming book, Ghosts in a Photograph: A Memoir. Her forebears were part of the first wave of immigration from Galicia in the early 1900s and had varying experiences as immigrants to Alberta.

    On her father’s side, granduncle Peter Svarich and grandfather Fred Kostash arrived with “thousands” of dollars, with which they bought livestock and supplies.

    The land was very productive, the total yield being more than three times what they had on their farm in Galicia. “Old man Svarich now felt like a wealthy man. A few acres of land in Galicia had been transformed into cash; in Royal Park the cash had been turned back again into land.

    “To Fred Kostash, however, the homestead was merely a means to an end: as quickly as possible to send the sons to school urging them, in his words, ‘Study, boys, so you won’t have to work as I do.’ His sons finished their public schooling in the substantial town of Vegreville, where they learned to speak unaccented English, and all went on to university. It was important to Canadianize. ‘If you must go to town,’ Peter told his sisters, ‘you will dress like ladies.’ No sheepskin jackets in sight.

    “In this formula: my Kostash grandparents’ emigration from Tulova was a sacrifice; they were willing to leave behind material and spiritual goods for the sake of children still to be born. They had the foresight their more timorous neighbours lacked, to see that the link to the ancestral soil had to be broken if ever the story of future Kostashes and Svariches were to be written in another script.”

    On her mother’s side, grandfather Nikolai Maksymiuk never homesteaded. “With forty dollars burning in his pocket, from his work in the Silesian coal mines, he purchased a small city lot in north-east Edmonton and built a modest house, sent for my grandmother still in Dzhuriv, then struck out for the packing plant. Seven years later, he was dead from pneumonia, probably from the conditions on the killing floor, breathing in dried blood.

    Myrna’s mother was only five years old when Nikolai died and his widow, Palahna, married his brother, Andrew, who became known as “Dido” (grandfather).

    “Dido was a socialist, never a communist, although he passionately defended the achievements of the Soviet Union made in the name of the working class,” she said.

    While doing interviews and research for her first book, All of Baba’s Children (published in 1978), Myrna Kostash obtained title to a quarter section of land near Two Hills and named it “Tulova” after the ancestral village of the Kostashes.

    “I nailed a rustic board to the outside wall by the door, inscribed in white paint, ‘Tulova’. To me, the name echoed the western-most point of my forebears’ journey to Canada. By nailing up the board painted with the letters Tulova I was laying claim, two generations later, to the memory of leave-taking, uprooting, and exodus… Forty-five years later, I can now appreciate what I had unknowingly done: brought into a single imagined space the two historical sources of my identity, a homestead on Treaty Six Territory, and a village in Galicia c. 1900.”

    In 2012, she co-hosted an exchange of gifts between Ukrainian and Indigenous artists. People sang and danced, told stories, showed paintings, exchanged prayers in Cree and Ukrainian.

    “But the disproportionate number of Ukrainians at the event – of the 85+ attendees possibly 15 were Indigenous – led me to conclude that the Ceremony was something we Ukrainians had to do, more than that Indigenous Edmontonians needed to do it with us.”

    During the Question-and-Answer session, moderated by Ottawa writer and Director of the Ukrainian Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko, Lindy Ledohowski, the speakers were asked about the interaction and intermarriage between Ukrainian settlers and Indigenous people.

    Vowel said this is an area where a lot of geographically specific research needs to be done.

    “We have stories about internment camps. We have stories about the pitiful situation that we saw Ukrainian prisoners being in. We have terms for Ukrainians so clearly relationships were there, and I have a sense that those relationships were somewhat mutually beneficial for a certain period of time and there was a distancing and separation and we have forgotten that history.”

    Kostash noted that more and more people are coming forward as having Ukrainian heritage but being raised in Indigenous communities

    “I’d love to be informed otherwise, but it is my impression that when there is a union of an Indigenous and a Ukrainian couple that child was raised by the Indigenous community not by the Ukrainians,” she stated.