JOHN HOWSE October 31 1988


JOHN HOWSE October 31 1988



Once again, there was the drumbeat of anger, threats that the confrontation could end in violence and the arrival of outside supporters to reinforce claims by the Lubicon Cree Indians to land. But this time there was a blockade of some 95 square miles of territory around Little Buffalo, Alta., northwest of Edmonton, which the Lubicon claim as ancestral homeland. Then, in quick succession late last week, came a sudden RCMP raid and 27 arrests, and an agreement between Alberta Premier Donald Getty and Lubicon Chief Bernard Ominayak to meet. Finally, after more than six hours of talks last Saturday in the northern Alberta town of Grimshaw, the two men emerged smiling from the Mile Zero Motor Inn and announced agreement on a settlement that would give the 478 band members the land title that they have been seeking in decades of struggle.


The agreement requires approval by the federal government, which has jurisdiction over native affairs. And the deal reached in Grimshaw left for future negotiations a Lubicon claim to jurisdiction over resources in

almost 4,000 square miles of land—rich in oil and timber—that the band says is its traditional hunting and trapping ground. But Getty agreed that the Lubicon should have title to the Little Buffalo homeland as a reserve. Said Getty: “I hope that after the chiefs band has this land they find an oilfield under it.”

For his part, Ominayak acknowledged that “we’ve still got a ways to go in dealing with the federal government.” Added the chief, who praised Getty for his initiative: “It’s not everything we were looking for but it’s a whole lot more than we’ve been getting.”

The agreement, which Getty said he would help to finalize with Ottawa, came one week after the Lubicon set up their land blockade. On Oct. 15, groups of young Lubicons wearing jeans and jackets embedded stout spruce stakes in the gravel of four roads. Impromptu garrisons manned rope barricades strung between the stakes. The Indians said that they

would require entry permits at a cost of up to $300 each for any oil company employees who tried to enter the area. Four days later, Ominayak reaffirmed an earlier announcement that his followers would not recognize the jurisdiction of Canadian courts—where federal-provincial feuding has tied up the Lubicons’ claim to ownership of the oil-rich land. Said the Indians’ Montreal-based lawyer, James O’Reilly: “It is not a secession; Canada never had this Lubicon land.” Then, just after dawn on Oct. 20, a squad of 53 RCMP officers armed with guns, chain saws and an injunction issued by one of the rejected Canadian courts moved in on the barricades and cleared the roads.

The raid—and the arrests of 27 people, including O’Reilly—brought the shortlived rebellion to an end. But on Thursday night, in an Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Peace River, Judge Ronald Berger released the 27 protesters after they agreed not to participate in any more blockades and to appear in court on contempt charges this week. Speaking for the others, O’Reilly told the court that he accepted the conditions, but he did so with the understanding that “this court does not have jurisdiction and under the reservation that the land in issue is Cree land, Lubicon land.” Within an hour of the police raid, Getty spoke to Ominayak by telephone, and the chief agreed to meet with the premier.

Getty insisted that the meeting be held in Grimshaw, about 100 km west of the Lubicon land, and not in Little Buffalo. Ominayak agreed to that, but told reporters that if there was no progress made toward a settlement in the land-claim dispute, his band would resume its blockade. Indeed, many of the 27 arrested had already returned to the blockade sites and set up camps that they called “observation points.”

Said Ominayak: “It could be a very short meeting.”

The Lubicons’ troubles are rooted in a historical oversight. When federal government agents toured northern Alberta in 1899 to establish reserves for identified Indian bands, they somehow missed the tiny hamlet on the shores of isolated Lubicon Lake and no treaty was signed. In fact, it was not until 1939 that the first white man visited

the remote settlement. The following year, attempts to establish a reserve were sidelined as Ottawa geared up for the Second World War. Efforts were intensified in the mid-1970s, following the discovery of oil in the area. But since 1980, the band has been deadlocked in legal disputes over how much land it is entitled to own. On the basis of treaty rights that cover most northern Alberta natives, the Lubicons argue that they qualify for 128 acres per band member—more than 95 square miles, based on the band’s claim to a population of 478. Indeed, late last week, a smiling Ominayak said that the recent birth of a Lubicon baby had added 128 acres to the land claim. In addition, the band has demanded compensation for oil taken from wells drilled since 1976 on land it claims title to, as well as future royalties from resource development over a vast area of traditional Lubicon hunting grounds. “The compensation is negotiable,” said Fred Lennarson, a band adviser. “But the amount of land is not.”

Successive federal and provincial governments, however, have challenged the Lubicon claim. In particular, they have questioned the native status of many people that the Lubicon include in their membership. And last week, some non-Indian residents of the blockaded area continued to criticize the scale of the Lubicon claim. Chester L’Hirondelle, 41, whose family has farmed a 160-acre homestead near Lubicon Lake since 1911, expressed outrage at the prospect of any of that land being returned to the Lubicon. “The province is offering to relocate us,” he said, “but it would be morally wrong for these people to push us aside.” According to L’Hirondelle, about half of those included in the Lubicons’ population figures are actually Métis, while others moved to the area from other reserves as recently as the 1960s. Said L’Hirondelle: “Now Chief Ominayak wants treaty rights for them.” Whatever their exact number, the Lubicons have suffered from events mostly beyond their control. Since provincially sanctioned oil development began in earnest in the Little Buffalo area a dozen years ago, the band’s traditional economic mainstays of hunting and trapping have declined dramatically. Unemployment, alcoholism and tuberculosis have ravaged the band. Observed adg viser Lennarson: “These o people really are in terrible trouble. By 1983, no less than 95 per cent were on welfare. Imagine what five years of that does to a community.” He added, “They are at the point where the government should either settle or finish them off.”

Until last week, the Lubicons’ difficult existence seemed likely to continue indefi-

nitely. The unwillingness of provincial negotiators to budge over the size of a proposed reserve had scuttled several rounds of talks between the band and the two governments— both of which must agree to any settlement.

But while the impasse continued, the band’s plight attracted mounting attention—outside Canada as well as within. Last year, the United Nations human rights committee requested that Canada “take interim measures to avoid irreparable damage to the band.” In Japan, the National Christian Council protested the Alberta government’s lease of timber rights in the disputed area to the Tokyo-based Daishowa Paper Manufacturing Co. for a planned pulp mill. And when the Lubicon set up their blockade, the action attracted encouragement from other native organizations and endorsements from outside groups.

Messages of support came from the Winnipeg-based Mennonite Central Committee Canada, the NDP—both the federal and provincial wings of the party sent representatives to Little Buffalo—and Western Europe’s Green party. Herman Verbeek, a Roman Catholic priest from Holland who represents the Green party in the European parliament, visited the barricades and compared the Lubicons’ plight to that of black South Africans under apartheid. “Only it looks somehow more civil in Canada,” Verbeek said. “The situations are basically the same: the blacks in their homelands are without economic resources, and the Indians are left behind, too. Canadians should know our people are aware of this tragedy.”

Other Canadian Indians rallied to support the Lubicons. In two days last week, Mohawk

Indians at Quebec’s Kahnawake reserve, just south of Montreal, handed out 10,000 leaflets to passing motorists, bearing a message of support for the Lubicons. At the Six Nations reserve, 100 km southwest of Toronto, 15 Iroquois band members stopped traffic on a provincial highway leading into nearby Brantford, Ont., for 17 hours in support of the Lubicon. The emotional power of the Alberta band’s cause was underscored by Daniel McLean, 76, a Cree elder from Sturgeon Lake, Sask.: “Canadians still don’t realize Indians were here first. We didn’t ask for treaties. Ottawa did. I know how the Lubicons feel—

moose all gone, fish polluted, country all full of wells and roads.”

Still, the Lubicon barricades posed a challenge to Canadian political authority that clearly outweighed other considerations. Said federal Indian Affairs Minister William McKnight: “Declarations of sovereignty have precluded [negotiations], to the detriment of the band members. The government of Canada cannot recognize a sovereign nation within Canada.” And in Edmonton, provincial Attorney General Kenneth Rostad added, “We want to make it clear that the laws of the Dominion of Canada and Alberta prevail.”

Even the agreement between Getty and Ominayak will not bring an immediate resolution to the Lubicons’ troubles. Apart from the need to win federal approval, no settlement will quickly remedy the conditions that have produced decades of illness, unemployment and alcoholism. Still, for Johnny Seeseequon, 18, a part-time trapper and Grade 10 student at Little Buffalo who manned a checkpoint for several days last week, the vivid demonstration of the limits of Lubicon patience had already proven worthwhile. Said Seeseequon: “It

means we are doing something, not just sitting back.” Seeseequon added that he was “willing to go all the way” to press his people’s claim for land. With luck, however, the rest of the distance will be travelled at the bargaining table, not on the barricades.

JOHN HOWSE in Little Buffalo