Due to the nomadic nature of the people, the European system of schools did not function for the Cold Lake Dene. In the fall of each year, whole families left for Primrose Lake for the winter. The only time available for school were during the summer months.
The Canadian Government adopted a system based on Reform Schools that the Americans were implementing for a long time. The best way to keep children from retaining their language, beliefs and culture was to take them as far away as possible from their home communities.
Native languages, beliefs and culture were believed to be an impediment to the learning of Caucasian values. The Clergy were used to condemn beliefs and cultural practices. The Federal Government instituted Residential Schools throughout the country including the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
The children of Cold Lake were forcibly taken to either Onion Lake or Blue Quills Residential School. This deprivation from well balanced family life for five consecutive generations took its toll on all the communities.
The Dene language had been replaced by the English language and the Residential School students were immediately marginalized as being ‘different’. The belief system and the culture had been effectively erased since 1844, after the Dene first encountered the missionaries.
Beliefs and cultural practices were deemed to be associated closely with the ‘evil one’. The Residential School system was imposed on the Cold Lake families up until the late 1960’s.
In June of 1882, after Uldahi left this world, there was no official leader for the Cold Lake Dene. In 1912, one of the Heart Lake men began a campaign to make English Bay a separate Reserve and choose their own Chief and Headmen there.
When this request was advanced to the Federal Government, they responded by saying they had no one on an official level to deal with. The Feds insisted that the Cold Lake Band appoint a new chief; then the matter at hand could be dealt with officially.
During the summer of 1913 the Cold Lake Dene, including the Heart Lake people, assembled on a hill near Reiter Creek. It took the assembly three whole weeks to reach a consensus. Alexi Janvier (Nanuchele) was appointed Chief. The land at English Bay was a piece transferred from the original survey for the Cold Lake Reserve; therefore it cannot become a separate entity. That is what was agreed upon by consensus.
In 1919 following the first world conflict, surviving veterans returning home brought with them an influenza which became widespread throughout the continent. The Dene were not spared from this epidemic. Almost half of the membership then were wiped out, including men, women and children.
This outbreak occurred in November and in those days the winter climate was much harsher. By November the ground would be frozen solid. The few that did not become sick and those who recovered well enough helped each other to bury the dead.
But because of the overwhelming numbers of dead, the survivors were unable to keep up to the task of burying. They began piling coffins in a barn that was being built but not yet completed, just across from Reiter Creek.
As the outbreak subsided and more men recovered they devised a way using horses to dig mass graves. Only then were the Dene able to bury their relatives. Those that had recovered fully from the epidemic regained their resourcefulness.
In winter, those families that were left went back to their traditional land to trap prized fur and hunt big game. During the growing season the Dene farmed until after the harvest, then wintered back in Primrose Lake.
Every household occupied themselves in agriculture; cereal crops but mostly livestock production. Some families herded as many as 300 head of cattle and every home had horses. As an agricultural investment, the Band purchased a steam engine used to break new fields for whoever requested it. As farming operations continued successfully, a caterpillar was later purchased. At least 70 per cent of Reserve 149 and a lot of 149B was broken and was excellent farmland.
Most cereal crops and some specialized crops grow well. But today, only a few Band Members farm the land. Some Members seasonally lease land to outside ranchers, although this benefits only these individuals. (According to Reserve Law, every Band member is supposed to benefit from any land transaction).
At Treaty Six in 1876, an assurance had been made by the Queen’s Commissioner to the Assembly, saying, “ If you hear gunfire of war outside the perimeter of your land boundaries, do not be afraid because the Redcoat will come to protect you.”
In 1939 gunfire of war was heard although it was not in this country. Young men who desired to enlist into the armed forces pleaded to the Chief to let them go. The Chief insisted that our people are not required to join because of the assurance given for safety at Treaty Six. The Chief forbade the young men from enlisting, however two members spitefully enlisted anyway.
One of the enlistees was declared physically fit so he went on into the North African, Sicily, and the Italian campaigns. The other was found visually deficient for active service. He was not sent overseas but he served in the north during the building of the Alaska Highway.
During these lean years, food ration books were issued and used. Rations stamps were essential to purchase certain foods from grocery outlets.
Each essential food item had its own colored stamps and required so many stamps per purchase.
In 1930, the most destructive piece of legislation called the Alberta and Saskatchewan Acts (Land and Resources Transfer Agreement) were passed by the Federal Government. Without the consultation of the First Nations, Canada transferred all the lands and resources of the Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, during this time, Indian people were not permitted to leave the reserve without special permission from the Government Indian Agent. In addition, the People did not have such organizations as the Indian Association or Assembly of First Nations to protect their interests. This legislation negatively affects our ability to continue our avocation of hunting and fishing within our Traditional lands, as was promised at Treaty Six.
In 1946, Government officials began enticing, on the sly, certain Band members to do away with the traditional method of appointing by consensus, the leadership of the Band. These few were seduced by being told they could become Chief and Councillors.
That same year the traditional protocol of selecting leaders was broken down by certain Band Members. The Government then imposed the elective system on the Band. Following this imposition, the Government could now effectively implement their assimilation policies.
Many Caucasian veterans were hired into the Public Service and many became Indian Affairs officials and Indian Agents. Beginning around 1951, the Federal Government approached the Cold Lake membership for their traditional land around Primrose Lake. The Government stated that an area to test aircraft and bombs was of utmost urgency because of the threat to North America from Russia via the north.
“You the Dene will be doing a great service to our Country’s safety if you release this land. For doing that you will be well compensated annually for 20 years, because you will be losing your way of life. After the 20 year duration, there will be a renegotiation of the compensation, if this land is still required. If it is not further required you can reclaim it.”
The Dene were reluctant to give up this land but they were promised to be sufficiently compensated. They thought that this compensation would bring about a positive change of living. The Government departments involved did not have compensation in mind. Once the land was acquired and people were forced to move, very little compensation was actually paid.
Following the loss of Primrose Lake, the social fabric of the Cold Lake Dene deteriorated rapidly and alcoholism became rampant. Social disorders began within families and breakups increased. A people who were once resourceful and independent were forced to live on welfare.
Electricity was finally introduced to the reserve around 1964. Households began needing electrical appliances and even television. There was no more hauling water manually and no more outhouses. Those became something of the past.
Also in the 1960’s, the Indian Affairs Department announced to the general public a ‘crash housing program’ for Treaty Indians. The amount in the millions for this program was also revealed to the public through the media and other methods of broadcasting. However these millions that were announced did not reach the Reserve residents directly; instead, the Department themselves rented plush offices and buildings to house the Indian Affairs personnel.
But the general public still believed that all those millions of their tax dollars went to the comfort of Treaty Indians. The Alberta Regional office of Indian Affairs, for example was housed on the 27th, top floor of the CN Tower in Edmonton. This was the most expensive location at the time.
In 1971, the Government imposed a policy stating that all present schools on Reserves will be closed and that all students would be enrolled and bussed into Provincial Schools. This policy was to speed up assimilation by exposing ‘Indian’ students to life off reserve.
However, the Dene from Cold Lake decided otherwise; on October 28th, 1971, parents pulled out all their students from school. The Dene Suline organized themselves by taking turns in a ‘Sit In’ of the Indian Affairs Offices on the 27th Floor of the CN Tower in Edmonton.
The group always had several occupants in the Indian Affairs Regional Offices. They were adamant with the decision they had adopted. “The Federal Government will build a new school on our reserve”, was their common cause.
Due to the steadfastness of the Cold Lake Dene, the Department finally yielded. They said a school would be built on the Reserve. It was April 22nd when students returned to school. The outcome of the Cold Lake Dene’s action benefited all Indian Reserves across Canada and the NWT to have schools built in each Reserve and community.
The assimilation policy of the Government was reversed for the time being. In 1969, the Federal Government first introduced the White Paper which they tried to further advance in 1971. This policy would try to nullify Treaty Status and also eliminate the Reserve System.
In Alberta all the Chiefs were summoned to Calgary to a Think Tank to find ways to counter this White Paper. The Cold Lake Chief and two band members were present at that gathering. Under the able and determined leadership of the late Harold Cardinal, the White Paper was countered with the RED PAPER.
To this day, the Government still applies the intent of the White Paper on First Nations, little by little. Band Members are now made to pay for uncovered medical treatment. In 1985, the Government created another impact in Reserve communities by passing a bill which re-instated into Treaty Status, women who had married non-treaty men.
The Cold Lake Dene were also affected because many girls had married local Air Force Personnel. Due to unemployment within the Reserve, the single native boys were apparently not potential prospects as providers. Although the Reserve people did not agree with this bill, the aftermath is still felt among affected families. Unfortunately, there was no mechanism in place to accommodate this sudden influx of new Band Members. Some Reserves have still not resolved this issue.
In 1991, the Federal Government announced that the Primrose Lake claim can be settled with the Cold Lake Band. The people assembled near Enoch First Nations where six members were selected to sit as the negotiating committee. The committee met and they worked out a claim position. They also exchanged their desires of a good deal with the Federal negotiator along with other department representatives.
An aboriginal lawyer (for whom the Band had paid for his law education) also sat with the Claims Committee. This lawyer confronted a certain Committee Member with legal faults. The lawyer insisted that the negotiations could become difficult because of this member’s presence during sittings with the Federal representatives.
Due to these deliberate confrontations it became difficult for the Committee to focus on the Claim planning. Eventually the Committee members resigned one by one, although it was the people who selected them. The Aboriginal lawyer, plus another lawyer from Ottawa, the Chief and one Committee member retained became the new negotiating body.
The general Band Membership had no significant input in the actual negotiation except during the Hearings that preceded the negotiation. A Reserve in Saskatchewan (Canoe Lake) who claimed to have had trapping activities in Primrose Lake settled quickly with the Government for a tidbit amount. This quick settlement set a precedent with the final amount paid to Cold Lake.
In the Settlement Agreement, additional land is to be added to Cold Lake First Nations. This segment of the settlement of additional land is now in the Order in Council stage and will become 149C. Meanwhile, in the new millennium the Cold Lake Band has initiated ways to lessen unemployment by creating business activities with employ many members.
Also in the near future, there will be a casino built. Hopefully this will employ many more of the younger members. It is hoped however that the community will not be negatively affected by this new venture. There has been a great emphasis placed on the training of Band Members in computer technology and for work in the Cold Lake area Oil Industry.
Although the Cold Lake First Nations historically suffered immense hardships as epidemics, Residential Schools, and negative Government policies, they are determined to be a dynamic and successful people as they enter the new age. We thank our Elders for their wisdom and although many have gone from us now, their words and actions will be honored and remembered in this Website.