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Lubicon Lake Cree sign historic land claim settlement

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Carolyn Bennett, federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Rachel Notley, Premier of Alberta joined Chief Billy Joe Laboucan, of the Lubicon Lake Band, at a special ceremony held in Little Buffalo on Tuesday, November 13, 2018, to celebrate the historic land claim settlement of the Lubicon Lake Band which was signed in late October. Photo: Premier of Alberta/Flickr

Premier Rachel Notley and her NDP government have resolved an 1880s oversight that left a small Alberta First Nation stranded on unceded land, without treaty protection. In the 1990s, the United Nations Human Rights Committee upheld the Lubicon Lake Cree complaint that their living conditions -- without running water or sanitary facilities -- left the whole community vulnerable to diseases associated with poverty and undeveloped countries, such as tuberculosis.

Worse, says Amnesty International, earlier governments licensed more than 2,600 oil and gas wells in the Lubicon's traditional territory, leaving their hunting, fishing and foraging grounds criss-crossed with more than 2,400 km of oil and gas pipelines.

"Today (2011), more than 70 per cent of Lubicon territory has been leased for future oil and gas development," noted Amnesty, "including oil sands extraction....The Alberta government has acknowledged it has brought in great wealth from development of Lubicon land. In the midst of this wealth, the Lubicon live without running water."

The problem has been that the Lubicon Lake band never signed on to Treaty 8, offered to Indigenous nations in the Lesser Slave Lake - Athabasca region. Indeed, the signing of Treaty 8 seems to have been poorly organized, partly because the northern First Nations resisted being installed in restricted reserves, like their Prairies cousins.

"Generally, the method of bringing bands into treaty was rather haphazard," concluded a 1986 report compiled by an in-house researcher at what was then the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. "There was no clearly defined policy for securing the adhesions of those bands which had not signed treaty in 1899 and 1900. Indeed, there were many Indians, [sic] particularly in the Fort St. John Beaver Band, who had not been given sufficient guarantees of their hunting, fishing and trapping rights to justify signing treaty..."

There was no great meeting of chiefs and the Queen's representative, as with Treaty 7, to celebrate a great peace treaty between nations. Treaty 8 did include the local Metis people, in hopes of staving off another Riel Rebellion. Some of the other northern First Nations eventually did sign on later.

"After the commissioners signed Treaty 8 with the readily accessible bands," according to a 1987 post on the Cultural Survival website, "the Lubicons attempted through trader and missionary intermediaries to make a treaty....Their treaty efforts failed, although some individuals were recognized as Indians and granted legal status as Indians. In 1940 these recognized Indians became the legal Lubicon Lake Band." 

Yes, that post really is from 1987. The plight of the Lubicon was an early cause celebre on the internet, along with freeing (allegedly wrongfully) convicted police killer Mumia Abu Jamal, who is alive and still in jail.     

Since they live in what is now called Alberta, the Lubicon Lake band won publicity by calling for a boycott of the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Their case was picked up by Cultural Survival, an Indigenous-led non-profit out of Cambridge, Massachusetts and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The little band of 450 souls struggling to survive in the northern woods became known world-wide. "In the last two weeks of August 1987 alone," said Cultural Survival, "45 Lubicon have been diagnosed as exposed to tuberculosis, and 32 have been hospitalized in Edmonton."

But the conservative federal and provincial governments of the day quibbled and said that only 200 of the people living at Lubicon Lake could prove they were direct descendants of the original village, and therefore would be eligible for Indian status, under the Indian Act. Even when a Liberal federal government was willing to negotiate, the perpetually conservative Alberta government was not.

"Alberta Premier Rachel Notley... remembers discussing the band's plight around the dinner table as a girl with her father, former Alberta NDP leader Grant Notley," reported CTV. [He died in a plane crash in October 1984, at the age of 45.]

On November 13 of this year, Lubicon Lake First Nation Chief Billy-Joe Laboucan finally signed onto Treaty 8, in a meeting on the new reserve, with federal and provincial ministers. "Lubicon Lake has waited far too long for their land claim," said Premier Rachel Notley, as she announced the agreement.

"Signing on to Treaty 8 comes with 246 square kilometres of land and $113 million in federal and provincial funds," reported CTV. With the band now numbering 640 members, "The list of upgrades the money will pay for is long. The band anticipates more than 140 new homes, a new school, new firehall with a truck, a health centre, a community hall with indoor rink, 12 kilometres of road upgrades and a fibre-optic link...."

More than 100 years after Crown representatives offered treaty to some First Nations but missed groups living deep in the forest, the Lubicon Lake Cree band has finally arrived home, with provincial and federal governments who were willing to negotiate with them and find them a way in out of the cold.

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column for four years. She was Editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004 - 2013.

Photo: Premier of Alberta/Flickr

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