Many First Nation men had enlisted to go into battle during World War I, despite the fact that their Treaties exempted them from having to serve in any of Great Britain's conflicts. For most of them, their service overseas was the first taste of life beyond the Indian Act. However, their freedom was short lived. Those who survived the war returned to find that nothing had changed. These young men were denied benefits given to other Veterans and were still expected to submit to the existing government policy. Their experiences overseas however had opened their eyes to their common problems of poor living conditions and government bureaucracy. As a result, things began to change significantly in First Nations politics.
A Mohawk Indian by the name of Lieutenant Frederick Loft sought an audience with the Privy Council and the King of England regarding the serious problems facing First Nations people throughout Canada. Both the Privy Council and the King encouraged Lt. Loft to organize his cause and upon his return to Canada, he did just that.
In 1919, Lt. Loft became instrumental in the establishment of the Indian League of Canada situated in Ontario. Its constitution was subsequently passed and adopted. The League's first goal was to protect the rights of all First Nations people in Canada.
In 1921, the Annual Congress of the Indian League of Canada was held at the Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan. For many of the Saskatchewan delegates who attended and participated, it was their first experience with organized Indian politics on a broad scale.
John Tootoosis of the Poundmaker First Nation was one of the delegates at this meeting. During this time period, Tootoosis became extensively involved in these political changes. In 1929, the Indian League of Canada was renewed in the Treaty 6 area and became known as the League of Indians of Western Canada. John Tootoosis became the first president of this regional organization. Residential schools and land issues were considered to be the key concerns of the day.
At approximately the same time the League of Indians of Western Canada was making inroads in Saskatchewan, a group of Treaty No. 4 First Nations; Pasqua, Piapot, and Muscowpetung, formed the Allied Bands. The leaders, Ben Pasqua, Andrew Gordon, Pat Cappo, Charles Pratt, Harry Ball and Abel Watetch, joined together to express their displeasure over the Soldier Settlement Act.
Under this federal legislation, First Nation veterans were eligible for land just like non-First Nation soldiers. However, the land allocated for First Nation veterans came from existing reserves. As a result, the First Nations' land base was being eroded and many people were beginning to voice their concern.
The Allied Bands soon expanded into the Fort Qu'Appelle area becoming the Saskatchewan Treaty Protection Association. In 1933, the organization again changed its name to better reflect its mandate, becoming the Protective Association for Indians and their Treaties. They adopted the mandate to protect Treaty Rights, Indian Lands and Resources and to work for better education in schools on reserve.
Another First Nation organization was formed in Saskatchewan in 1943. The new group, the Association of Saskatchewan Indians led by Joe Dreaver, quickly became one of the largest in the province.
First Nation political organizations took a major step forward in 1946 when then Premier of Saskatchewan, T.C. Douglas became involved. Premier Douglas was concerned about the plight of First Nation people in Saskatchewan. He was interested in helping to unite the three major First Nation organizations in the province.
A 1946 meeting of the League of Indians of Western Canada was convened at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. Henry John of the Protective Association and Joe Dreaver of the Association of Saskatchewan Indians were both invited to attend.
The issue of amalgamating the three provincial organizations was discussed at great length during the Duck Lake meeting. The consensus was that one collective, provincial voice would help unify Saskatchewan First Nations' position.
Later that year a second meeting on this issue was held at the Barry Hotel in Saskatoon. It was at this meeting that the three provincial First Nation organizations joined forces to become the Union of Saskatchewan Indians. The delegates elected John Tootoosis as President, John Gambler as Vice-President and passed a new constitution.
The Union of Saskatchewan Indians identified the following goals:
The protection of Treaties and Treaty Rights
The fostering of progress in economic, educational and social endeavours of First Nation people
Co-operation with civil and religious authorities
Constructive criticism and thorough discussion on all matters
The adherence to democratic procedure
The promotion of respect and tolerance for all people
It was in 1958, the Saskatchewan First Nations organizations became the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians (FSI). The following year the structure of the FSI was determined.
For more than two decades, the FSI worked towards fulfilling its mandate, which was centered on the protection of Treaties and Treaty Rights. Significant progress was made in a number of areas.
New inroads were made in education with a 1972 policy paper that called for "Indian Control of Indian Education". Shortly after, band controlled schools were established to replace residential schools.
The FSI also established various institutions such as the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College (now called the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre) in 1972 as a teaching institution. As demand for programs grew over the years, the FSI initiated other institutions. The Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, the Saskatchewan Indian Equity Foundation and the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies were all established by the FSI, as they continued to meet the increasing educational needs of Saskatchewan First Nations.
Despite the progress that the FSI was making on behalf of First Nations people in Saskatchewan, concerns were raised regarding the non-profit status of the organization. It was felt it did not accurately reflect the organizations changing nature or mandate.
In keeping with these concerns, a massive re-organization of the FSI was undertaken. On April 16, 1982 Saskatchewan Chiefs agreed to form Canada's first Indian Legislative Assembly. The political convention they signed restructured the FSI. As a result, the provincial governing body was no longer a non-profit organization but a true Federation of Nations. It was at this time the FSI expanded its name to the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN).
The Chiefs gained control of the executive and administrative functions of First Nation government at the band, tribal council and provincial level.
A resolution was adopted on October 19th, 1982 to draft the Provisional Charter of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. This charter is now known as the Convention Act, which outlines the governing body and structure of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. The first Legislative Assembly of the Chiefs of Saskatchewan was held one year later on October 19th, 1983.
Since that first Assembly, Saskatchewan Chiefs have made significant progress in the struggle toward recognition of Treaty Rights and the creation of a better future for First Nation people. For more than fifty years now the Chiefs have worked as a collective, unified voice for the protection and implementation of Treaty Rights.