Meet Île-à-la-Crosse

Sakitawak is Cree for where the rivers meet and is the enduring name of Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan.  Île-à-la-Crosse is the second oldest permanent community in Western Canada. Although Cumberland House is designated as the oldest community, it was only a temporary stop as people made their way to Île-à-la-Crosse for trade purposes.

The Community of Île-à-la-Crosse was designated as a National Historic Site in 1954 by the Federal Environment Minister on the advice of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, additionally, the entire community is considered a historical Métis community, and as such contains a strong Métis identity throughout.

According to the Heritage Conservation Branch of the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport, there are 16 known archaeological sites in the Île-à-la-Crosse area as of 2020.

Due to the historical fur trading in the area, five of these sites are historic fur trading posts. The other 11 are prehistoric artifact scatter sites, with one also containing historic cabins. Most of these sites are located on or just outside of the municipal boundary. Our ancestors have lived here since time in memorial verified by archaeological digs which have uncovered artifacts over 11,000 years old.

 

Our first contact with Europeans was a direct result of the fur trade and dates back well over 250 years.

The first permanent
community was established in 1776. 

Both the Montreal based Northwest Company and the London based Hudson’s Bay Company sought after this strategic location.  In 1779, the Hudson Bay Company establish the first trading post, and over the years there were 5 Forts located in or near the community. Two are located where the rivers meet, in Ile-a-la-Crosse and where the present-day school is located. Fort Black, a Northwest Trading Company Post is located on Beaver River as you make your way to present day Beauval. The river system is the “…life blood” of the region.

The first mission was established in 1783.  The introduction of the Catholic Church had profound impact and changed the tradition and culture of the community.  Soon after the community was established, missionaries arrived. As one Elder states “…Cree traditions were partially replaced by Catholic dogma.” Intermarriage resulted in a large half-breed population.

Note: The word Métis, which means mixed race or cross breed in French, is a more politically correct term.  It is the term in the Canadian Constitution to define a nation and is used in this document.  This does not take away from the fact that to some still, half-breed is preferred simply because of the strong connection to Cree ancestry, Âpihtaw’kosân.  To others, however, the term is offensive because many Métis have pride in their mixed heritage and half-breed has been used derogatively by non-Indigenous people, without respect.  Like other Indigenous peoples whose lives relied and lived on the land, there are different communities of Métis present all throughout Western Canada, from Sioux Ste. Marie to Onion Lake, Alberta.    This is in addition to the Métis who have settled in cites and towns across Western Canada, like Prince Albert, Saskatchewan where the Métis will make up 55% of the total population in 2026.   Not all Métis communities are the same, or alike.  Most are exceptionally diverse and bring a richness to each community. 

In Ile a la Crosse, in 1783, as the missionaries learned the Cree language, they became part of the community and because of their position of power, they became a powerful influence in the lives of our people.  Their strategy was introducing religion to the youth through education and in this way establish the Church so soon a mission was established.

In 1846 a Roman Catholic Mission was established and in 1860 three Grey Nuns arrived founding a school and hospital.  The hospital was a response of the health issues imported by Europeans like the new epidemics observed elsewhere in North America.  Ile a la Crosse has the oldest Roman Catholic Mission West of Winnipeg.  The mission facility also functioned as a school orphanage and was also the beginning of the St. Bruno residential school and day school in our region. 

Ile-a-la-Crosse is a Métis community with a rich history that resulted from the economic and middleman role in fur trade.  Métis were also mediators that spoke the language, provided economic opportunity and married the cultures. Ile a la Crosse is uniquely positioned geographically for trade and was the economic center for trade in the region. Sakitawak (where the rivers meet) include the Churchill River, the Beaver River, and the Canoe River systems.  This river system all converge in our community and serve the English River District, Beaver Lake, Green Lake, Lac La Loche, and Lac La Ronge all located in Saskatchewan.  As the Métis voyageur work force was developed the “middleman” entrepreneur role grew and a large Métis community resulted.

Not all growth brings cohesiveness. The competitions between the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company resulted in conflict as both wanted to control trade. At the same time, there was conflict between the Catholic Church and traditional people as both groups wanted control. Traditional people tolerated the Catholic Church, but the consideration was not mutual. Trade also resulted in conflict between Cree and European entrepreneurs over the control of the land. All these impacts and others contributed to great change in the region and often these changes were the result of the ideologies in Europe and Ottawa. For example, the conflict over land and decision making resulted in the Riel Resistance. During the Riel Resistance in 1885 Roman Catholics and Hudson Bay staff fled Ile-a-la-Crosse and sought refuge on Cross Island near Patuanak. Louis Riel Sr. the father of Marguerite Marie (Sarah) and Louis David Riel was born in Ile-a-la-Crosse in 1817.  Marguerite Marie (Sarah) Riel was one of the nuns that served in the community and is buried in Ile-a-la-Crosse.

Treaty 10 was signed in Ile-a-la-Crosse in 1906.  With the encroachment of Europeans, Métis knew that they would not be considered so they took leadership in the development of the region.  The Federal Government policies and Treaty processes purposefully excluded Métis as being a federal responsibility. It was simply a matter of expediency. Land and money script were designed to make it easy to transfer these entitlements to immigrants and bank institutions.  For example, Ile-a-la-Crosse residents were provided script land which was located in southern Saskatchewan knowing that people would not relocate.  Most people were not going to move south when they had established economic ventures in Ile-a-la-Crosse living in the bush to settle on farms. This was understood and was part of the strategy of extinguishing title.

People of Ile-a-la-Crosse took economic leadership.  As they travelled, they saw the impacts that economics, religion and education had on the fabric of the community.  In 1920, they established a fish plant called the Ile-a-la-Crosse Fish Company.  Many of the people continued to live off the land, through well established mink ranches, to preserve a livelihood by hunting, trapping, and gathering. It was a time of change and although it is not well articulated, Judge Sinclair, the Chairperson of Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated the strategy very well.  The federal and provincial government policy is simple “…the purpose is to take lands and resources.” Many have reflected upon the history as a deliberate process designed for the stated purpose.  Many of the Elders suggest that it was accomplished in several ways.  Introduction of disease either on purpose or innocently had the same impact. In 1930, there was a measles outbreak and flu epidemic where hundreds of our people died.  The mass graves in the Ile-a-la-Crosse cemetery is just a reminder of the impact of European taking lands and resources. Although many in the region sat back and accepted their fate, people of Ile-a-la-Crosse took leadership realizing if change was to take place it was going to have the direct involvement of the community.

In 1932, Vital Morin one of the residents led a campaign to establish a new hospital.  When the Federal government across Canada used the RCMP to kill dogs to limit Indigenous mobility, the Métis of Ile-a-la-Crosse just utilized the river systems more.  When governments were aggressive in relocating our people in the region, many stayed on the land as they seen the impact of dependency of many of their relatives. These land users seen the impacts of having their mobility limited and dependency as force to move us off the land and moving us to the village. Laws requiring children to go to school was just another means to the end – taking lands and resources.

Although some argued that there was more access to services, the Elders of the community saw the big picture and described the settling by the cost – dependence.  Life was changing.  Our first mail was delivered in 1936 and the first plane landed on the lake in 1940. Many describe the fear as they seen the first float plane land as it was war time and the families who had sent many of the men and women to fight overseas knew the heartache of death of a loved one.

The constant struggle to limit the influence of the church resulted in the Catholic Church petitioning the federal government in 1938 to locate an RCMP detachment in Ile-a-la-Crosse.  The reason was they feared the control of the village governance was being challenged.  Up to this, the power for decision making was vested in the priest, the school (principal and teachers), the doctor, the Hudson’s Bay Store manager, and government officials who were not Indigenous and were not residents of the area. Those returning from military service in the Second World War were not prepared to remain docile, as our military men returned and knowing they fought for Canada, they refused to be treated as second class citizens.  Many of our veterans were directly involved in the Juno Beach landing in 1944 and had a variety of involvement in the liberation of Europe and they now wanted to liberate their community from colonialism.  It was only in the last year that the Government of Canada recognized the role Métis veterans played in liberating Europe by defending Canada and the Commonwealth in WWII.  Upon returning from war, Métis veterans were refused any support and recognition. 

At this time, the Catholic Priests, Indian Agents, teachers, store owners, doctors and nurses who controlled the community ideas, were challenged. The community was split; those supporting the status quo and those that wanted direct involvement in decision making to exercise their Indigenous rights.  The result was split families.  Those returning from the war brought with them their vision, but also their trauma.  The Federal Government was also making changes to the Indian Act (1951). There were two distinct populations in Ile-a-la-Crosse, the Europeans and the Indigenous population, but Indigenous families were also split – those that had Treaty and those that did not. Whether you had Treaty often was a result of parentage. Families because of marriage relationship, beliefs, or circumstance always took sides. There were those that continued to live off the land, and those that took relief (this is the fore runner to the welfare system). There were those that were a federal responsibility and those that were not. Whether you call it relief or welfare it all leads to dependency and with dependency came the lack of opportunities and lack of people harvesting food, medicines and other necessities of life off the land. At this time, most of the community that still lived off the land needed access to the economic activities, education for their children, housing, fishing, etc. They needed to see the expansion of the fish plant, ice plant, and economic opportunities.  For some, the addictions of people provide economic opportunity and “the bootlegger” became part of the community fabric. With the road being built for extracting natural resources came the illegal drug trade.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s the “showdown” happened as leaders in the community insisted that their voice be heard.  Recognizing the speed that things were changing the community mobilized and took control of the school, election of village governance, and active involvement in political processes to assert rights. At the time of taking over the school board, many of the students were not doing well and most had to leave the community to go to Prince Albert to finish their high school. Governance of the community was controlled by the Provincial Government until 1983 when the LCA Overseer was replaced by a Mayor and Council.  Ile-a-la-Crosse provides leadership for regional and provincial Indigenous organizations and took leadership roles in the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution (1982) and Métis Right being entrenched. At the time, the Province organized the Department of Northern Saskatchewan to provide a more hands-on effort because demonstrations were disrupting the extraction of natural resources.

Over the next few decades, the voices were getting louder. What does the community want? Like most communities Ile-a-la-Crosse wants 

“…A community of happy and healthy children, people with high self-esteem, people that take pride in their heritage, their homes, and community. People want to work and not be dependent on the welfare system. We want our people who are proud of who we are, where we come from and what we do.  Most want a community that is safe, secure where we can raise our children in a family environment.  Historically our community has always been an attractive community with the friendliest people in the north. Simply put a strong united community.”

In stating what we want, we know that this will not take place unless our leaders and families take responsibility. Responsibility means getting directly involved in governing the community. We have a village council and we need family councils to take advantage this unique opportunity for community members; however, taking control of our destiny means we are now responsible for the outcomes, both the benefits and challenges.