all - economic

Unauthorized Lumber Harvesting on Little Red River Reserve (Lac La Ronge and Montreal Lake Bands)


An excerpt from Merle Massie’s, Forest Prairie Edge, which explains in great detail the effects of logging North of Prince Albert and unauthorized harvesting committed by logging companies on the Little Red River Reserve, between 1904-1910. A Specific Claims Commission case between LLRIB and Montreal Lake v. The Crown is ongoing for the Crown's failure to uphold it's fiduciary obligation. The court found a failure to uphold fiduciary obligation and compensation settlements are underway:

Impact of Logging Industry on Local First Nations

“Both Sturgeon Lake Reserve (known at the time as William Twatt’s band) and Little Red River Reserve (sometimes referred to as New Reserve or Billy Bear’s Reserve) were embedded in the major wood “basket” of the north Prince Albert region and straddled both the Sturgeon River and the Little Red River systems.[50] Extensive commercial lumbering in the region led to both opportunity and loss. First Nations men worked in the lumber camps, freighted supplies, cut and traded hay and oats, provided fresh meat, and worked on the river drives in spring.[51] Women found a ready market for moccasins and mittens, jackets and belts. Members living on these two reserves derived considerable income from the lumber camps, either through direct wage labour or in a supply capacity. Little Red River members in particular were closely tied to the lumber camps. The Indian Department noted in 1901 that residents of Little Red “derive their income from grain, potatoes, the sales of lumber, hay, freighting, and day labour (lumbering).”[52] Reports from the Indian Department until the end of the First World War reiterated these occupations, along with continued fishing and hunting.

The extensive lumber industry, however, had a negative ripple effect in the region. Trapping and fishing activities along the rivers were severely disrupted by the large log drives. Hundreds of men, strange sounds, and extensive environmental disturbance virtually eliminated local hunting opportunities, and hunters were forced to go farther and farther away from the reserves to find meat. Finally, the two reserves contained excellent saw timber. In particular, the Sturgeon Lake Lumber Company and the Prince Albert Lumber Company desired those trees, and documents show that both companies culled valuable timber from Sturgeon Lake Reserve land without compensation or authority. In 2001, the Sturgeon Lake band succeeded in settling a major claim with the federal government for the loss of this wood revenue.

The Little Red River band (as of 2013) is in the process of prosecuting a similar claim, but the economic and environmental impacts of lumbering on their reserve were more complicated. It was set aside as a farming reserve for the Montreal Lake and Lac La Ronge bands by 1897, but permanent farming was slow to take hold. In 1903, A.J. Bell, manager of the nearby Sturgeon Lake Lumber Company, requested disposal of the standing and fallen timber on the reserve.[54] The Indian agent went to Montreal Lake to consult with the chief and council there and came away with a signed deed of surrender, which initiated a series of problems. The Montreal Lake band expressed uncertainty over whether or not they should sell the timber and left it up to the Indian agent to make the final decision on their behalf. In effect, the band signed a carte blanche: ‘We have decided to leave the question of the sale of the standing and fallen timber in [the agent’s] hands, if after he goes through the timber, he considers it best to leave it at present, we agree to that; if on the other hand he thinks it should be sold then we agree to that.’[55]

The agent decided that the timber should be sold for several reasons: it was at its maturity and thus at its economic height for merchantable timber; nearby timber limits were currently being logged, particularly the Shannon and Sanderson timber berths; the slash from those nearby limits heightened the fire potential of the area, and if a forest fire swept through before the timber could be logged it would be virtually worthless; the merchantable timber within the reserve was estimated at most to be 2.5 to 3 million board feet, considered a small cut. It would be better, the agent thought, to sell the timber when loggers were nearby and it was practical to cut it. A second surrender, this time from members of the band living on the reserve, was also taken.[56]

The fact that Little Red River Reserve was so far away from its two parent re-serves created an administrative dilemma. It was difficult to decide whom to ask for a surrender, who had authority, and who had the right to make decisions. The timber was advertised and sold by tender in the summer of 1904 to I.G. Turpiff of Canada Territories Corporation Limited.[57] Almost immediately, a letter arrived from Reverend James Hines of Prince Albert at the Indian Commissioner’s Office in Winnipeg. The letter indicated that the men living on the reserve in question, the New Reserve, “strongly object to all their timber being sold from them.”    Those who signed the timber surrender, the letter noted, “are living 60 miles north and have plenty of timber there.” Those on the reserve did not object to selling some of the timber for cash, recognizing its proximity to the timber limits being worked all around the reserve, but they wanted to make sure that some of the bluffs were kept for their own use.[58]

The letter from Reverend Hines indicated the difficulty under which all parties were operating. By this point, there were two surrenders taken for this wood, one from Montreal Lake and one from men located on the New Reserve. Clearly, though, there were divisions within the New Reserve as well as between the two northern settlements and the one southern settlement. The Indian Department, however, was operating on the legal strength of the two surrenders, and the timber was sold. The sale led to the second major problem: the New Reserve was co-owned by both the Montreal Lake and the Lac La Ronge bands. In January 1905, a letter arrived from the Lac La Ronge band expressing their concern over how the wood surrender had been handled, since they were also owners of the New Reserve.[59] Although the response was that, indeed, the Lac La Ronge band was entirely correct in this assertion, ‘it was not deemed necessary to confer with them on the question of surrender of timber as they reside at a great distance from the Reserve…, although they are entitled to their equitable share of the proceeds of the timber and will receive it at the proper time.’[60]

The proceeds of the down payment on the timber berth were split between the two bands. The company that won the contract, however, was slow to hand over the capital. When it finally did, the sum was placed in trust solely for use of the Montreal Lake band. The trust amounted to over $5,000, and the interest was expended in purchasing supplies for the Montreal Lake band beyond those agreed to by treaty.[61] It was only in 1910, after a lengthy investigation into the surrender and sale of the timber and the disposal of funds, that the trust was redistributed to the credit of the Lac La Ronge band.[62]

The timber on Little Red River Reserve, because of its proximity to transportation, mills, and a market, was correspondingly much more valuable than any similar stands of timber found on the Montreal Lake home reserve or at La Ronge. Correspondence indicated, however, that only a portion of Little Red contained merchantable white spruce saw timber. The rest of the reserve, chosen for its agricultural capability, had open hay lands and stands of brush and aspen—it had been logged, in fact, long before it became a reserve.[63] The controversial timber limit on the New Reserve was neither large nor lucrative, at least according to official documents. The original bidder neglected to pay the rest of the tender price and never logged the timber. The Sturgeon Lake Lumber Company took over the contract. It tried unsuccessfully to renegotiate the original tender, arguing that it was unfair to pay ground rent on the whole reserve—56.8 square miles—when there was merchantable timber on only a small portion of that area, about three square miles. The company by this time was under considerable scrutiny from the Indian Department regarding its logging on Sturgeon Lake Reserve No. 101, for which it had not paid its dues or cut payments. The Indian Department was reluctant to renew the timber berth contract for Little Red when the company was obviously tardy in paying dues, rent, ground fees, and payment on the cut from Sturgeon Lake. The company protested, saying that it still had about a million board feet of timber to log out at Little Red. The company paid the remaining dues but only after many threatening letters from the Forestry Department. It soon rescinded the logging request. By 1909, the Sturgeon Lake Lumber Company had logged only a portion of the available timber. Of the original estimated 2.5 million board feet, it cut 1.5 million. Its timber licence was not renewed.”[i]

Differing accounts from the members of Little Red River IR and the Department of Indian Affairs suggest that unauthorized harvesting continued even after permits were not renewed. The Indian Agent, Silas Milligan, on Little Red River IR claimed that no unauthorized harvesting commenced in correspondence with the Forestry Department.[ii]  The opinion of DIA, “contradicts the oral memory of Little Red residents, who record extensive non–First Nations timber cutting that was never paid.”[iii]

“The timber dispute, and the subsequent fight over the trust funds, set the stage for division. Little Red River Reserve was informally split. The Lac La Ronge band was accorded a much larger share of the reserve since they had not yet chosen all their treaty land entitlement in and around La Ronge; moreover, at the time of the treaty in 1889, they were a much larger band and had a larger treaty land entitlement. The Montreal Lake band was accorded nine out of the roughly fifty-six square miles, the Lac La Ronge band the remaining forty-seven.[67] Confusion over who owned what proportion of the timber (until the land was informally split), investigation of how much timber was actually logged and paid for when and by whom, and the debate over which band (Montreal Lake or Lac La Ronge) owned which parts of the reserve will complicate the current court case…Landscape and tree cover, regional logging prior to creating the reserve, ownership, payment, and actual logging are subject to conflicting interpretations.”[iv]

In the case of Lac La Ronge Band and Montreal Lake Cree Nation v. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, the Hon. W.L. Whalen ruled that the Crown had breached its fiduciary obligation to the LLRIB and Montreal Lake Bands, citing numerous failures to prevent unauthorized harvesting.[v] In finding that the Crown had breached its fiduciary obligation to the LLRIB and Montreal Lake Band, hearings to determine compensation are still ongoing almost 8 years later.

“There was an almost wanton disregard for the environmental impacts of the logging industry. Cutting trees and bringing them to market abused and reshaped the entire north Prince Albert landscape. The Spruce/Little Red River was small and could not reliably handle log volumes. To compensate, the Prince Albert Lumber Company cut all the trees along the riverbank and built a series of dams to control water flow. This intervention culminated in damming Beartrap Lake (now in Prince Albert National Park) and building a canal southward to move its water into the Spruce/Little Red River system to flow south to the mills at Prince Albert—an environmental intervention with major implications for the local landscape [flooding]…

White spruce is an old-growth tree that requires specific conditions to flourish. Unless a large area of fully mature white spruce was left unlogged, to offer a seed source for new growth, the species could not regenerate efficiently. The debris left from extensive logging, combined with the flammable nature of forest litter in aspen stands, led to forest fires within the area. Homesteaders placed increased pressure on the landscape. Escaped fires from brush clearing on the homesteads raged through the region. The combination of logging, agricultural settlement, and fire was nearly catastrophic: white spruce was virtually eliminated from the forest canopy.[72] Although the boreal forest is a fire-dependent regime and fire is a necessary part of the forest regeneration cycle, extensive forestry intensified the effects of fires. Logging virtually eliminated mature white spruce capable of producing cones, and the extensive tree litter prohibited cone regeneration. The impacts of fierce ground and canopy fires resulted in a local transition from primarily mixed-wood forest to a canopy dominated by aspen, burnt brush, and open meadows.”[vi]

The effects of deforestation were readily apparent by 1919 and years following, when forest fires swept through Northern Saskatchewan and Alberta. Bishop J.A. Newnham of Prince Albert wrote to the Daily Herald:

“‘On the way up the whole country seemed to have been burned over by the recent fires, and only blackened tree trunks, which had fallen or will fall within a year or so, remain in the once well-timbered area. The soil also has been deeply burned and even the muskeg had been on fire. The game suffered heavily, young birds and eggs being destroyed.’ The roads suffered as well, he added. ‘In general all bridges over the Little Red and Sturgeon rivers have been burned and a number of the Prince Albert Lumber Company’s dams. The forest rangers are now [making] temporary repairs to the bridges and clearing the trails of fallen trees.’[85][vii]

The devastation seemed complete. Scientists and historians have pinned these fires to increasing agricultural expansion into the forest edge, where homesteaders and settlers, eager to clear land for farming, employed extensive brush burning.”[viii]

Deforestation, in particular clear-cutting, has since increased over the last century; under the current Provincial Government (2022), plans to continue aggressive clear-cutting are being pushed as “environmentally friendly.”[ix] This incites great concern amongst First Nations and Métis residents in the North, as clear-cutting has expanded into remote regions beyond the Prairie Forest edge (Little Red River, Nisbet Forest), into areas like La Ronge, Montreal Lake, Meadow Lake, and even further.[x] Residents have witnessed dramatic changes to the wildlife and ecology of their homelands over the last 60 years, and comment on the alarming impacts to their traditional lifeways, economies, and food resources, as well as environmental destruction.[xi] The threats which clear-cutting poses had, and continues to have, damaging long-term socioeconomic impacts to Indigenous residents whose lands, and the protection of those lands, are innately connected to their lifeways.[xii]  




  1. [i] Massie, Merle. Forest Prairie Edge. 81-84.
  2. [ii] Massie, Forest Prairie Edge, 84.
  3. [iii] Massie, Forest Prairie Edge, 84.
  4. [iv] Massie, Forest Prairie Edge, 84.
  5. [v] Lac La Ronge Band and Montreal Lake Cree Nation v. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, 2014 SCTC 8, [2014], 5002 SCT 11, at paras. 184-195.
  6. [vi] Massie, Forest Prairie Edge, 85,86.
  7. [vii] Prince Albert Daily Herald, 12 June 1919.
  8. [viii] Massie, Forest Prairie Edge, 90.
  9. [ix] Dayal, Pratyush. “Stumped.” CBC News Features. July 10, 2022.
  10. [x] Dayal, “Stumped,” 2022.
  11. [xi] Dayal, “Stumped,” 2022.
  12. [xii] Dayal, “Stumped,” 2022.