Solomon Sanderson is an expert in Indigenous governance, inherent Aboriginal rights, treaty rights, and the constitutional framework governing Canada’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples. After 55 years of involvement in Aboriginal politics in Canada, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of federal policy, treaties, and governance structure.
A member of the Chakastaypasin Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan, Sol served as Executive Director and first vice-president of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) before being elected chief from 1979 to 1986. He was also a founding leader of the Assembly of First Nations, which represents status Indians in Canada. In 1981, while serving as chief of the FSIN, he coined the term “First Nations” in an effort to assert Aboriginal peoples as the third founding nation of Canada. Although the word was originally intended to replace the word “band” – which was the term used by the federal government to describe on-reserve communities – it is now used to describe both individuals and communities, and has since become the preferred term for Aboriginal peoples who were formerly referred to as “Indians.”
“One of the major reasons I came up with the term,” Sol says, “is because our people didn’t want to talk about sovereignty – they were afraid to even say the word. So I had to find a way of planting the seed that we are nations, and we have sovereignty."
A pioneer in Indigenous governance in Canada, Sol was instrumental in ensuring that Aboriginal treaties and inherent rights were included in the Constitution Act, 1982. He also helped create the terms of reference for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which was established in 1991 to investigate the relationship among Aboriginal peoples, the government of Canada, the federal department of Indian Affairs, and the culture of Canada as a whole. For Sol, that meant highlighting the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which enshrines Aboriginal land rights and establishes the constitutional framework for the negotiation of treaties with Aboriginal peoples.
“The Royal Proclamation is like a Charter of Rights for First Nations people that the federal government has to abide by,” Sol explains. “It provides recognition of all the inherent rights, especially recognition of title and of the sovereignty of the governments of our nations.”
Sol believes that education is a primary tool for individual success and cultural survival. The lifelong civil servant founded some of Canada’s most important Indigenous cultural and educational institutions, including the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre, the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies, and Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (which is now known as the First Nations University of Canada).
“We set up the first First Nations-controlled school in Canada when I was Chief,” Sol says. “It was to validate ourselves, so we wouldn’t be looking elsewhere for validation of who we were, or how to do it. Everything at that point was controlled from the outside.”
Sol believes that asserting inherent Aboriginal rights is a responsibility to the next generation. Clan kinship was a major part of pre-colonial Indigenous governance, and women were also central to the governance of the nations. Sol helped draft the “Indian Control of Indian Education” document released by the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) in 1972 so that Aboriginal peoples could take a greater role in educating young Aboriginal people about their cultures and traditions.
“When we talk about our inherent rights, we’re really talking about rights that are granted by the Creator,” Sol explains. “We are born with them; we inherit them from generation to generation. As nations we inherit those rights from our mothers and grandmothers, the female side of the family. Our traditions, our customs and practices, spiritual beliefs, language, culture, inherent rights to lands and resources, inherent rights to self-determination and governance, rights to education, social development, and health, inherent rights to water and air – we know that when we went to make those treaties that we didn’t put our inherent rights on the table for negotiation. Some are reserved by treaty-making and remain our responsibility. A whole range of inherent rights are recognized by treaty-making.”
Sol, who speaks fluent Cree, grew up with a strong work ethic. He was chosen to lead his community at an early age, when he was 15 years old. Today, he is still a vital force at the age of 73.
“My mom and dad had a mixed farm on the reserve,” Sol remembers, “growing wheat, barley and oats. We also had pigs, cattle, beef cattle, horses, chicken, turkey and ducks. I was raised there, and that got me used to hard work and being productive. My mom used to can an average of 400 quarts of berries a year – my mom did that until she was 85 years old! It was a healthy life, and we had a lot of support from the community. My mom and dad had extended family there all the time and anything we raised there was shared with the community and the people. They always left with food. That was basically how I grew up.”
Sol believes that it is possible for Aboriginal peoples in Canada to maintain a dual identity, both Aboriginal and Canadian.
“Dual citizenship status is already recognized,” Sol explains. “When the British government made treaty with us in treaties 1 to 11, they recognized our status as British subjects, as being members of the British Empire, and as having our own jurisdiction for citizenship and membership. They recognized us as dual citizens.”
Sol has been called a visionary for his role in creating stronger Aboriginal communities and a more equitable relationship between Aboriginal peoples and Canada. Although he’s retired from active politics, he is still serving the community through his work with the Anglican Church of Canada, serving on the Office of the Primate’s Commission on Discovery, Reconciliation, and Justice. Now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has released its final report, reconciliation is top of mind for many Canadians. For Sol, the process of reconciliation must include an acknowledgement that Aboriginal peoples can govern their own affairs.
“We lost total control as a people, as nations,” Sol reflects. “We lost total control of our political development, economics, health, social development, citizenship, our land and resources, our justice. We’ve got all these symptoms as a result of loss of control, like high suicide, poor health conditions, high unemployment. We need to treat the causes. We need to do it our way.”
Explore the website of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner (Saskatchewan) to learn why all Canadians are treaty people
Learn more about the First Nations University of Canada here
Read the Final Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples
Read about the Doctrine of Discovery here
Check the CRRF glossary, including terms that apply to Aboriginal peoples
Explore the CRRF's resources on Aboriginal peoples here