Naming and Claiming
THE DREAM OF REGAINING LOST NATIONHOOD FOR HIS PEOPLE — ONCE SOVEREIGNS OF VAST STRETCHES OF PRESENT-DAY CANADA — FIRED THE MIND OF A SASKATCHEWAN CHIEF
The dream of regaining lost nationhood for his people fired the mind of a Saskatchewan chief.
The document is faded, its edges are tattered, and it has taken on a tint of sepia. It is one of only five known original copies of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which recognized Indigenous title to lands in British North America that had not been ceded by treaty. A visitor to the rare books and special collections area of McGill University’s library in Montreal will find the document framed under glass.
While the importance of the proclamation is just being discovered by many non-Indigenous Canadians, its power has exerted a lifelong influence on Solomon Sanderson, the Saskatchewan Cree chieftain who brought unity and a common identity to Indigenous people by his invention of the term “First Nations.”
That creation of Chief Sanderson’s fertile mind, which first appeared in the 1980 Declaration of the First Nations claiming “rights and responsibilities [that] cannot be altered or taken away by any other nation,” would prove to be a turning point in the long struggle of Indigenous peoples to gain fuller recognition and recompense as the original occupants of present-day Canada.
“I coined the term ‘First Nations’ to plant a seed to show we are nations entitled to sovereignty, with a long history of selfgovernment,” said Sanderson. “The idea came to me when we were working on a new governance structure for the reserves in Saskatchewan that would be based on our traditional customs and inherent rights. We had many days of debate and discussion. Our people were afraid to speak of sovereignty, and many refused to believe we could have self-government.
“One night in 1980, I got up about three thirty and sat at the kitchen table, scribbling out terms. I didn’t like the term Indian band, because a band could include people from different tribes, like Cree and Blackfoot. When I wrote down ‘First Nations,’ I realized that was it. We had been nations before European contact, and it was time to become nations again, this time First Nations.” The term, he felt, was ideal to describe Indigenous people who were not Métis or Inuit.
Sanderson remembered that the royal proclamation of
King George III referred to Indian nations, and, he said, “this had a strong influence on me.” Sanderson had read the document as a boy at an Indian residential school to which he was sent at the age of fifteen. According to the proclamation, “the several Nations or Tribes of Indians … who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed.” Sanderson saw it as a charter of rights for Indigenous peoples — a promise forgotten by Canada in its rush to take over land and to push the original occupants to the edge of existence.
“There were sixty-nine nations with highly structured governance systems on Turtle Island when the whites arrived,” Sanderson said, referring to North America by the name given to it by the Iroquois, among other First Nations. “We showed the Europeans democracy, of which they knew nothing, having come from countries ruled by kings and tyrants.”
To Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the term coined by Sanderson “conveys the reality that we are the original peoples of this land, and we are nations in every sense of the word, with our own languages, laws, lands, governance systems, and citizens.”
Ask a Canadian how long First Nations have been in existence, and the answer will probably be “thousands of years.” Only in the past forty years, however, have they been known by that name. The fact that the term has won universal acceptance in such a brief period qualifies it as a change in itself but also as something with the power to create change.
“Sometimes changing language can change how people see reality,” said Bob Rae, who has acquired a unique outsider’s understanding of First Nations issues in his career as a politician and lawyer. He is now the negotiator for the Matawa First Nations on the Ring of Fire mineral development in northern Ontario.
“This is certainly the case with the phrase ‘First Nations,’” Rae added. “The phrase implies sovereignty, self-government, and a sense of priority. It brought a historic shift in sensibility.”
Alan Middleton, a professor of marketing at York University and an expert in branding, said the expression “First Nations” has worked because “it is an all-encompassing term that unites Aboriginal bands and gives them a common national interest.” As such, he noted, “It has raised the profile and credibility of Indigenous peoples.”
Solomon George Sanderson was born in 1941 on James Smith reserve, now a First Nations community near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. His parents operated a mixed farm growing wheat and barley and raising cattle, pigs, and chickens. The family spoke Cree at home, and Sanderson absorbed a traditional culture of sharing and support.
“I came to no harm at the residential school but I did learn about politics,” he said. “I put out a student newsletter that was sent to parents at home, but the school put a stop to it. We got only one issue out before we lost our freedom of the press.”
Loss runs through Sanderson’s recounting of his life and times. First as chief of his home reserve, and later as chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations from 1979 to 1986, he witnessed the struggle of his people to reclaim a lost destiny as sovereigns in their own land.
“From the time of their arrival Europeans targeted the destabilization of our governments, customs, practices, laws, and culture,” Sanderson asserted. “They implemented integration, assimilation, and liquidation. They destroyed families, communities, and nations. We lost total control of our lives. The consequences are unemployment, suicides, drug addiction, and homelessness. ”
Sanderson came of age in the tumultuous 1960s. A white paper by the then newly elected federal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau proposed the abolition of the Indian Act and sent shock waves through Indigenous communities. Although they resented the act’s control over their lives, they feared that its abolition could lead to what Alberta Cree writer, teacher, and lawyer Harold Cardinal called “cultural genocide.”
Sanderson joined the protests against the proposal. He recalls driving to a rally in Regina in an old Model A Ford. He slept in it for several nights, until the decision to fight the federal government had been made. The fight was successful, and the government never acted on the white paper.
After studying at a business college in Prince Albert, Sanderson served as executive director of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations before being elected its chief.
When Trudeau declared his intention in 1980 to repatriate the British North America Act in order to give Canada a new constitution — one lacking recognition of the nation-building contributions of its first citizens — the response from Indigenous people was rapid and forceful.
After failing to secure a meeting with the prime minister, Sanderson led a delegation that met with Governor General Edward Schreyer to ask him to intercede with Parliament. The
Ottawa Citizen quoted the representatives as asking for recognition that First Nations’ “powers and responsibilities exist as a permanent, integral fact,” just as set out in the royal proclamation of two hundred years earlier.
The group gave a copy of the new Declaration of the First Nations to the Governor General. It marked the first public presentation of the declaration and the first formal claim to the status of First Nations. In reporting the meeting, the Ottawa
Citizen carefully used the expression “first nations” in quotation marks and without capital letters.
After rallies across Canada and missions to the United Nations and to London, England, where the British Parliament was considering the new Canada Act, Sanderson confronted Justice Minister Jean Chrétien at a news conference in Canada House.
“When Mr. Chrétien saw me he turned pale and angry,” Chief Sanderson recalled. “I gave him a package of papers to show to the Queen. Instead, he threw them back at me, right over my head.” The incident was reported in the Quebec media but not in English Canada, Sanderson said.
On April 17, 1982, Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signed the new constitution at a ceremony in Ottawa. With the future of Indigenous rights far from settled, the National Indian Brotherhood reached a fateful decision: It would throw out its existing name and become, as Sanderson advocated, the Assembly of First Nations. A week after the Queen’s signing of the constitution, nearly four hundred chiefs met in Penticton, British Columbia, to replace their loose federation with a new, more centralized organization. Saskatchewan delegates put forward the three motions that created the AFN, and a Saskatchewan chief, David Ahenakew, was elected national chief.
In a historic nod to the nation-to-nation relationship that was emerging between Canada and Indigenous peoples, Trudeau invited First Nations elders to meet with him and with the provincial premiers in a first ministers conference in 1983. The idea of chiefs sitting down with the prime minister and premiers to work out their future was something new for Canadians to grasp, as was the “First Nations” label the chiefs had attached to their cause.
It took three meetings, all of which Sanderson attended, before an agreement was reached for Canada to recognize not just “existing” treaty rights but also those that “may be so acquired.” That principle, set out in Section 35 of the Constitution Act, has since been reflected in such treaties as those signed with the Nisga’a and Tsilhqot’in First Nations in British Columbia, recognizing their rights to self-government and giving them extensive control over resource development on their lands.
At seventy-six, Sanderson remains active in efforts to improve the lives of his people. His First Nations Forum, a think-tank that develops educational curricula grounded in Aboriginal philosophies, builds on his long interest in education. He was a founder of the First Nations University of Canada that has graduated four thousand students since 1976.
When the chiefs of the seventy-four nations making up the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (since renamed the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations) met in 2016, Sanderson recounted the changes he had seen over the fifty-nine years he had spent working on Indigenous issues. “I’ve been at it since I was fifteen,” he said, adding, “I need more than your respect now. I need your permission to implement the wisdom of Solomon.”
Two hundred and fifty-five years have passed since the royal proclamation recognized the existence of Indigenous nations, and it has been thirty-six years since the Assembly of First Nations came into being. Nearly 1.5 million Indigenous Canadians — First Nations, Métis, and Inuit — may at last be on the cusp of securing their rightful inheritance as the first sovereigns of this land.
Saskatchewan Cree chief Solomon Sanderson in the mid-1970s.
Above: The Royal Proclamation of 1763. Right: Young Solomon Sanderson mid-1960s.
Above: Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau attends the Federal Provincial Constitutional Conference in Ottawa on February 13, 1969.
Left: Harold Cardinal (standing), president of the Indian Association of Alberta, addresses Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa, June 4, 1970. Cardinal requested that treaties with First Nations be handed over for settlement to a “truly impartial...
Solomon Sanderson in February 2016 at the Senate entrance to the Centre Block on Parliament Hill during Senate meetings.