Fred Fraser plans to keep up the fight for Tsuu T’ina band membership
“This isn’t over.”
At 64, Fred Fraser has a knobby face that looks like it’s been hammered out with a chisel. The Tsuu T’ina elder recently left his on-reserve home at Black Bear Crossing to move into a Lakeview apartment with his teenage grandson, and already he’s looking west and talking about leaving the city to live off the land like his ancestors.
“See that first tip?” says Fraser as he looks out the west-facing window past the Grey Eagle Casino. “That’s Moose Mountain. That’s our sacred mountain. That’s where they prayed, because the closer you got to the sky… the easier for the eagle to carry your messages to the Creator.” Fraser knows the place well; he set up a protest camp there for several years in the 1990s while fighting to be recognized as a Tsuu T’ina member. He was arrested and thrown in jail three times for barricading the road to the mountain — “I was ready to die for the cause,” he recalls. But then an old Tsuu T’ina man came and set up a sweat lodge that changed him. “Ever since then, that lodge, I’ve lost my anger,” says Fraser. “I know who I am now, and I didn’t before.”
His anger may be gone, but Fraser’s struggle to be recognized as a Tsuu T’ina remains. He’s now living mere metres off the northeast corner of the reserve where he learned to hunt and ride horses as a boy, where his grandfather and uncle (Jim Starlight Sr. and Jim Starlight Jr. respectively) were revered chiefs. “Some of that blood runs through me,” Fraser says.
Earlier this month, Fraser and his sister Florence Peshee ended a bitter legal fight to stay in their homes at Black Bear Crossing — a dilapidated housing complex just off 37th St. S.W. — by accepting the band’s offer of Calgary rental housing for a year. (Peshee lives across the hall from Fraser.) “It’s like moving to a different part of the world,” says Fraser. “It’s not the same.”
Now he plans to return to Moose Mountain in the spring. He sees himself building a solar-powered log cabin up there with his brothers, and hunting moose, deer and elk. “I’ve got a spot all picked out and everything.”
Both Fraser’s ’90s protest and the more recent conflict at Black Bear Crossing are relatively short chapters in a long, complex and often confusing story. The 1876 Indian Act took Indian status and band membership away from women who married non-Indian men. Fraser’s mother, Ruby Starlight, was one of these women; even though her father and brother were Tsuu T’ina chiefs, she lost her Indian status and band membership when she married a Métis man. But in 1985, the Canadian government amended the Indian Act to restore status and membership to women who’d lost them by marrying non-Indians. Fraser’s mother got her membership back and her children applied to regain their membership, but the Tsuu T’ina band doesn’t recognize Fraser, Peshee and many others in the same situation as members. “They’re denying us that right, that very special privilege to be who we are,” says Fraser.
(If you didn’t follow that last paragraph, don’t worry. That’s normal. As one Mohawk lawyer told me: confusion is the right response to the Indian Act. If it makes sense at first reading, get your head checked.)
Fraser would eventually like to leave the mountain for the reserve. “If the band says they’re willing to make us members and put up a house for us, we’ll come back down,” he says. “But if not, and if we like it enough [up there], we might not come down at all.” He’s aware that the Canadian government will take issue with his plans (it’s illegal to build a permanent dwelling on the mountain), but he’s not deterred. “It’s our last refuge, more or less,” he says.
Meanwhile, down the road at Black Bear Crossing, the last holdout is preparing to move out. Earlier this month a Court of Queen’s Bench judge sided with the Tsuu T’ina in evicting elder Regina Noel, a woman who lost her Tsuu T’ina membership by marrying a Sioux man. The band has offered her a year of rental accommodation in the city, and Noel says she’ll take it if she can’t get an on-reserve home. “It was sort of a sad moment there for a while, but then I thought, ‘No, I can do this,’” says Noel. “I feel OK about it.”