Why you should care
Because righting old wrongs can take many years, but it is possible.
Just south of Frog Lake in eastern central Alberta sits seven austere black iron crosses, a granite tombstone and a plaque to commemorate the lives lost in a massacre 131 years ago. While the memorial is for the Indian agent and white settlers who lost their lives in 1885, in many ways it’s the unmentioned role of Big Bear that dominates living memory — not to mention the continued struggle of Canada’s indigenous people to reclaim their rights.
In the 19th century, no one could have imagined today’s respectful term, First Nation, would be used to describe the nomadic Canadian natives who gradually ceded their land in treaties to the Canadian government. They were increasingly restricted to living on reserves, where poverty and resentment bred.
These poor folks were being coerced to sign a treaty that was one-sided.
The band of Cree was spending the winter at Frog Lake. Their chief, Big Bear, had refused to sign a land-ceding treaty for years, but he had failed to convince his fellow chiefs to go along with him. When he finally did sign, Big Bear did so without agreeing to a reserve — which would have granted the Cree access to government food aid — because he hoped to win better terms for his people. But the depletion of giant buffalo herds had made survival on the plains difficult, and in the harsh winter of 1885, the Cree grew hungry … and angry.
On the night of April 2, inspired by a rebellion to the east by the Métis — people of mixed Indian and white heritage — Big Bear’s young warriors seized the settlement at Frog Lake, despite their chief’s opposition, to collect arms, ammunition and food. Indian Agent Thomas Quinn refused the attackers’ orders to leave, and war chief Wandering Spirit responded by shooting him dead. Eight more unarmed settlers were killed in the frenzy that followed and about 70 others were taken prisoner, with the settlement being burned to the ground.
The government quashed the rebellion, convicting Wandering Spirit and five of his men of treason and executing them. Big Bear was hardly a pacifist, but he was unfairly depicted as a savage in the aftermath of the massacre. Despite his efforts to halt the rebellion, the 60-year-old chief was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.
Joe Dion, one of Big Bear’s great grandsons, and now honorary chief of the Frog Lake First Nation reserve, treasures a necklace of bear claws that Big Bear wore during his years in prison. The rebellion was “inevitable,” says Dion, because “these poor folks were being coerced to sign a treaty that was one-sided.” But he doesn’t condone the murders.
Nor did Edward Ahenakew, a Cree and Anglican minister who unveiled the memorial back in 1925. He attributed the violence to resentment over loss of their beloved nomadic traditions. “They did not know that they were totally unfitted by previous habits for a settled agricultural life,” Ahenakew said, referring to the massacre as the First Nation’s final attempt to register disapproval of “the ever-increasing power of another race in the land.”
But it was far from their last attempt to stand up and be noticed. Today the Frog Lake reserve is relatively prosperous, thanks to hundreds of revenue-generating oil wells that have helped pay for new houses, sports facilities and schools. Step by step, Canada’s First Nations have begun using natural resources and the law to flip their traditional hunting, fishing and trapping rights to create revenue streams.
Chief Clifford Stanley of the Frog Lake First Nation grew up here, where the burnt foundations of some of the affected homes remain visible. He remembers finding an old pipe once, the long stem of which had snapped off. After cleaning it up, he found the letters “ID,” for Indian Department, engraved underneath. This got his dad talking about the massacre, and Stanley quickly realized that Big Bear’s contemporaries had seen him as “a hero” — a far cry from what he’d been taught in school.
Today Big Bear’s reputation, like that broken pipe, is being rediscovered and rehabilitated for future generations, who continue to find ways to make their living on restricted land.