‘Our band is stronger than ever’: The fight is over. Now the Lubicon Nation must decide what’s next

Little Buffalo — With the whine of chainsaws and smell of smoke in the air, a dozen young men in good spirits are cutting and burning underbrush to protect the Lubicon Lake cultural camp from wildfire.

A $150,000 provincial Fire Smart grant means work for 16 men right through the winter. Then it will be a month off, and firefighting season starts in the community about 460 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

This is training and opportunity making way for stronger families. The momentum’s already started here and these men are betting the long-awaited Lubicon Lake land claim settlement signed last month will open the door to so much more.

“More jobs, more to go around because there’s still a few people here and they’re not working,” said fire crew member Frankie Noskey, thinking of the future for his seven-year-old daughter.

A FireSmart crew pose for a picture after helping to clearing out vegetation to reduce the fuel during a wildfire, at Mihkowapikwaniy Cultural Preserve near Little Buffalo. Local band members like Frankie Noskey (2nd left) and Shane Ominayak (R, kneeling) trained in the FireSmart program.

A FireSmart crew helping to clearing out vegetation to reduce the fuel during a wildfire at Mihkowapikwaniy Cultural Preserve near Little Buffalo. Local band members train in the FireSmart program.

The historic settlement between the Lubicon First Nation, the Canadian government and Alberta means a new school, houses instead of mouldy trailers, a Head Start early learning program for the youngest and a recreation centre with indoor hockey. It means nearly $100 million for economic development, years of local construction jobs for anyone trained and ready, and a $35,000 cheque for each adult right before Christmas.

It also means land — finally. And with that, the right to build and develop their own backyard.

For 85 years, the Lubicon fought to claim its own piece of turf and a fair deal with the Canadian government. It’s hard to believe this chapter is closed.

In the 1980s, the Lubicon band made its name known. The Lubicon were a symbol of injustice, the band Canada forgot. Their long-ignored struggle put Alberta on the world stage for all the wrong reasons: Canada was condemned at the United Nations; museums around the world boycotted Calgary’s Glenbow Museum; supporters from as far as Japan and Germany raised money for the Lubicon cause.

The fight put treaty rights front and centre in newspapers, as the TV screens shared images of Indigenous blockades, helicopters in the sky and mass arrests when the band tried to block access to its traditional territory.

Part of Little Buffalo community as Lubicon Lake Band members participate in a celebration to commemorate the signing of a historic land claim settlement at Little Buffalo, November 13, 2018.

In Alberta — years before municipal and provincial leaders started regularly acknowledging they are on Treaty 6, 7 and 8 territory — more started to question if Canada’s history was really as fair, brave and straightforward as some history books suggested.

And now, finally, Lubicon leaders have negotiated terms with the federal and provincial governments. A community vote passed. The deal is signed.

In Little Buffalo before the formal Nov. 13 signing, few band members wanted to talk about the settlement. They were happy, however, to discuss what’s going on in their community today — the training, new jobs and sense of hope.

On the deal itself, there’s a sense of relief mixed with trepidation.

Small wonder. For so long, the fight for the deal defined the band. Now there is so much potential and the Lubicon must decide what’s next.

‘Plagued with having … nothing’

Little Buffalo, the community at the heart of the Lubicon Lake First Nation, is the size of a hamlet. A collection of roughly 650 people and 120 trailer homes cluster around a school, health centre and band office in the middle of Alberta’s aspen parkland. It’s a five-hour drive north of Edmonton, tucked above Lesser Slave Lake in a land now criss-crossed with oilfield access roads.

The nearest grocery store is one hour away in Peace River.

Chief Billy Joe Laboucan of the Lubicon Lake Band. As band members participate in a celebration to commemorate the signing of a historic land claim settlement at Little Buffalo, November 13, 2018.

Chief Billy Joe Laboucan, 64, was elected to lead the band six years ago, with a five-year plan to get the community back on its feet. He’s a quiet man, but frank and professional, with master’s degree in education from the University of Alberta.

“We’ve been plagued with having absolutely nothing in that community,” said Laboucan, who slipped out of a planning meeting in Edmonton to talk just days before the formal signing in Little Buffalo.

I know what he’s talking about. On my previous visits to the community, I met with mothers heating bath water on the stove, digging a new hole for the outhouse each fall. The entire kindergarten-to-Grade-12 school had to work out of the gym after a classroom roof collapsed and mould was found in the second wing.

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Now band council is planning water lines, upgraded sewage facilities, and studying the economic viability of several new ventures.

Laboucan says one priority is to develop a one-megawatt solar farm, an energy source large enough to power the whole community if new homes are built with a high-efficiency, net-zero standard.

That project would build on experience the community gained installing and running a 21-kilowatt solar farm beside the health centre three years ago.

A decade from now, Laboucan hopes to invest in a 10-megawatt farm, using the region’s long summer days and icy-cold winters to start selling energy. The cold makes the technology more efficient. “We want to be able to start generating revenue,” he said.

The Piitapan Solar Project, a 20.8kW renewable energy installed in 2015 that powers the health centre in Little Buffalo. Lubicon Lake Band members participate in a celebration to commemorate the signing of a historic land claim settlement with the federal and provincial governments at Little Buffalo, November 12, 2018.

Opportunity on reserve

Solar energy is just one of the initiatives the Lubicon band is looking to as a catalyst for change.

The community is planning development of a greenhouse, investigating if excess natural gas from nearby drilling locations could be rerouted to heat it. Right now, gas is being flared.

Loans are going to be made available for community members hoping to run their own businesses. There is also a long-standing dream to bring bison back to the land.

Other efforts to get community members back to work are already paying off. Five years ago, unemployment was roughly 80 per cent, said Laboucan.

The band partnered with the province on new training programs, and worked hard to secure more fire prevention and local oilfield maintenance contracts. Now the chief estimates the number of people looking for work is down by half.

The Piitapan Solar Project, a 20.8kW renewable energy installed in 2015 that powers the health centre in Little Buffalo. Lubicon Lake Band members participate in a celebration to commemorate the signing of a historic land claim settlement with the federal and provincial governments at Little Buffalo, November 12, 2018.

On-reserve poverty is heartbreaking but for those who stay, there’s still beauty and hope on this land.

To the Lubicon, this is home.

The forest is peaceful, family is close; there’s a sense of roots and belonging. Children can leave and always have a place to return to.

Plus, today there are jobs. Children need teaching, pipelines need maintenance, families need groceries.

Sure, milk is cheaper at the No Frills grocery store in Peace River. But the going rate to catch a lift to town is $100. Many people in the community don’t have vehicles.

There’s opportunity at home and council is working to build services that eliminate the need for band members to spend entire paycheques elsewhere.

“We want to bring those services back so the money changes hands five or six times in the community,” Laboucan said.

Hands prints of students on painting hangs in Little Buffalo School. Lubicon Lake Band members participate in a celebration to commemorate the signing of a historic land claim settlement at Little Buffalo, November 13, 2018.

Rethinking education

Underpinning every economic discussion, though, is a serious conversation about better education.

Today, the dropout rate is so high in Little Buffalo, the Grade 10, 11 and 12 students fit in one half-empty classroom.

Those who do stay often have to take a year or two of upgrading courses to get into any post-secondary program.

That’s one reason the band quit the provincially-run Northland School Division this year to join a new school board. The Kee Tas Kee Now Tribal Council Education Authority is a group of five schools from neighbouring bands. Laboucan said the priority is now academic rigour and land-based learning.

The band is building a culture camp beside Lubicon Lake, a 20 minute drive from Little Buffalo, where cabins are under construction to host groups of students for a week at a time.

Students will learn hunting and trapping skills, personal discipline, and the history of their people. Camps will build relationships between students, teachers and community elders, encouraging pride in identity.

Keane Cardinal, 17, grade 12 student at Little Buffalo School. Lubicon Lake Band members participate in a celebration to commemorate the signing of a historic land claim settlement at Little Buffalo, November 16, 2018.

Seventeen-year-old Keane Cardinal credits a culture camp he attended at a neighbouring reserve for helping him stay in school last year. Over three different weeks, he learned ice fishing, trapping, and how to take apart a lawn mower and put it back together; an elder helped teens skin a bear and learn what the different parts are used for.

“There’s kids out there that are going through their own personal stuff. It’s a good way to forget about that,” Cardinal said, taking a break from class. And the camps offer students a more personal glimpse of their teachers.

“It helped me with getting back into school. School was getting boring. It was nice to do something different and when I got back to school, it made things easier,” said Cardinal.

He’s now hoping to graduate this year, and is looking at power engineering or law as a future career.

Little Buffalo School. Lubicon Lake Band members participate in a celebration to commemorate the signing of a historic land claim settlement at Little Buffalo, November 16, 2018.

The Lubicon culture camp started as a memorial to Bella Laboucan-McLean, the chief’s daughter. The 25-year-old was a recent college graduate who died in Toronto in 2013 after falling from a 31-storey balcony. Laboucan-McLean’s name was added to the national list of missing and murdered Indigenous women after none of the five people at the condo where she died could or would tell police what happened.

Laboucan-McLean’s family met at the site annually for four years to remember her, then saw potential and started hosting a local family camp, open to anyone, each summer. This year, 350 people came from as far away as Saskatchewan and B.C.

Eventually, says camp co-ordinator Shianne McDermott, the camp could become a tourist destination, giving outsiders a chance to experience living on the land the Cree way.

The camp is a good spot to capture the mood of the community. That’s where the fire crews are hard at work.

Across the field, the former chief’s nephew, Darcy Ominayak, is finishing construction of the first two log cabins. He voted yes for the land claim settlement because of the change he already sees in personal relationships here, he said.

Darcy Ominayak, helping to construct cabins at the Mihkowapikwaniy Cultural Preserve, a land based learning camp to ensure cultural teachings and protocols for youth and children.

People are putting aside old grievances, showing up for family suppers.

For years, the plan was to use settlement money to rebuild the community around the shores of Lubicon Lake. That’s where people’s parents and grandparents used to live. But Ottawa wouldn’t let missionaries build a school on the disputed land and slowly families moved to be close to children in Little Buffalo school.

Today, a few families still hope to build homes in family clusters near the lake, but most plan to stay closer to Highway 986, and the school and health centre in Little Buffalo.

Some of the local band members are working to construct cabins at the Mihkowapikwaniy Cultural Preserve, a land based learning camp to ensure cultural teachings and protocols for youth and children.

A grim history

The planning for permanence is what makes this land claim agreement feel like a new chapter.

The land claim started in the 1930s when Lubicon elders approached Canada’s Indian Affairs department to let federal officials know they were missed decades earlier when treaty negotiators followed the rivers to northeast and northwest Alberta.

Ottawa agreed to provide tools, educational support and protected title to 95 square miles. But first a forest fire, then the outbreak of the Second World War prevented the government from surveying a reserve. The deal stalled.

Then in 1952, oil changed the equation. The Lubicon took Alberta to court to stop the province from selling drilling rights and building an all-weather road through the land, but that failed. By 1979, the road was done. Drilling started in earnest, moose populations plummeted and traplines went empty.

It meant welfare for most of the band. Without access to land or capital, options for economic development were limited.

A generation of homesteads in Little Buffalo, some of the mobile homes (L) still have mould and no running water. Lubicon Lake Band members participate in a celebration to commemorate the signing of a historic land claim settlement with the federal and provincial governments at Little Buffalo, November 12, 2018.

The next decades saw boycotts, lawsuits and blockades. With support from activists across Canada and internationally, the Lubicon managed to keep most logging and oil drilling out of the 246 square kilometres of reserve land.

But multiple attempts to thwart the cause and split the band earned Canada a human rights violation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It’s grim reading for anyone who expects their government to act fairly toward its citizens.

In recent years, news stories have focused more on internal divisions than the land claim.

Some members lost faith in longtime chief Bernard Ominayak, accusing him of being authoritarian and questioning his use of band funds. The First Nation was running a deficit and late on school payments.

In June 2009, the Ominayak critics held an election and chose Steve Noskey as chief. But Ominayak supporters held a second election and declared him “chief for life.”

Ottawa refused to choose sides and put the band into third-party management, appointing an independent official to hand out welfare cheques and ensure fresh water was delivered.

An old boarded up homestead in Little Buffalo. Lubicon Lake Band members participate in a celebration to commemorate the signing of a historic land claim settlement with the federal and provincial governments at Little Buffalo, November 12, 2018.

Eventually, Noskey resigned, hoping that would move a united community forward. But Ottawa still wouldn’t recognize Ominayak because it questioned the legitimacy of his election.

In 2013, a group of about 100 Lubicon members tried again. They hired an outside electoral officer and organized a new election, picking Laboucan using a secret ballot.

His support has slowly grown. Turnout increased to 63 per cent of the 499 eligible voters when he was re-elected last year. This fall, 73 per cent came out to vote on the land claim settlement. Only four votes were cast against.

Already ahead

One of the first things Laboucan did was reach out for help. His council joined Kee Tas Kee Now, a local tribal council involving five related bands, seeking help to reorganize band affairs and get it out of third-party management.  

In 2014, additional help arrived. Jim Prentice was elected leader of the Progressive Conservatives and became the first sitting premier to visit Little Buffalo. He made the trip the day after he was sworn in.

The Lubicon band asked for educational support, emergency housing and help to restart the land claim.

Prentice secured all three — including $5.6 million for 52 mobile homes to replace houses riddled with black mould. Premier Rachel Notley carried on with the effort when she became premier.

Some of the mobile homes still have mould and no running water in Little Buffalo. Lubicon Lake Band members participate in a celebration to commemorate the signing of a historic land claim settlement with the federal and provincial governments at Little Buffalo, November 12, 2018.

Those small steps made a world of difference.

Mould grows in houses that are overcrowded and not built with proper ventilation. It leads to health problems, more missed school days for children, marital strife and depression.

Fix that and you’ve got a solid base, said Laboucan. A warm, safe house lowers stress levels for everyone in the family. “There’s less drugs and alcohol in a stable home. People want that.”

But politically, some divisions linger.

Ominayak still claims the title chief for life. He declined to comment for this story. Laboucan estimates Ominayak still has 30 supporters.

Dwight Gladue was an Ominayak supporter for years. He served on his council, walked beside him across the marble floors of the Alberta Legislature in the 1980s.

At the community signing ceremony Nov. 13, he stood at the back of the gym, listened quietly as Laboucan thanked all the leaders who kept the claim alive, then stepped outside for a smoke.

Temporary structures are setup as new cabins are being built at the Mihkowapikwaniy Cultural Preserve, a land based learning camp to ensure cultural teachings and protocols for youth and children.

Gladue voted yes for the deal. But he’s worried.

This deal doesn’t include a wildlife management agreement for the larger traditional territory, which the previous council wanted. Recent court decisions now require the government and resource industry players to consult with them, but will that be enough to protect the moose and remaining wildlife for community members?

As for construction jobs, the community projects will have to go to tender. Can Lubicon leaders ensure band members really do get those jobs, profiting from the work and experience? He wants desperately for this to go well and, “like the white people say, the devil’s in the details.”

Others are anxious, too. Did they make the right choice? Should they have held out for more?

The packed gym was quiet during the Nov. 13 ceremony. The audience offered polite applause as Laboucan, Notley and federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett signed the historic document, but not much more. Lingering questions likely account for the restrained reaction, said Lillian Whitehead, a great-grandmother who cried during the ceremony, remembering how hard her father fought for this.

New boards and the structure (R) are being added to the existing ice rink in Little Buffalo. Lubicon Lake Band members participate in a celebration to commemorate the signing of a historic land claim settlement at Little Buffalo, November 16, 2018.

On the day of the community vote, earlier in this fall, Whitehead went home to sit alone in her living room, nervous as the ballots were counted late into the evening. Her daughters came by afterward, tiptoeing into the room to surprise her with the news.

“I just jumped up and screamed and we were all crying.”

This agreement doesn’t give all the answers. But it’s a new place to start. It gives hope, said Whitehead, now raising three great-grandchildren in a second-hand mobile home.

This deal is the beginning of a new relationship, she said. Like a marriage, “you have to work on it. Do the work ourselves, make sure that it happens.”

Source of hope

What the community has now is a new sense of optimism.

Jordie Sawan and Candace Gladue are both young parents pouring their hearts into building something new.

Jordie Sawan, construction manager Lubicon Lake Ventures at his office in Little Buffalo. Lubicon Lake Band members participate in a celebration to commemorate the signing of a historic land claim settlement with the federal and provincial governments at Little Buffalo, November 12, 2018.

Sawan, 38, son-in-law to Bernard Ominayak, is now construction manager for the band.

His eyes light up when he talks about securing the first “liquid haul” contract last spring, doing the regular truck run to haul oil from a pumpjack lease location to the nearby battery.

Past grudges aren’t keeping him from putting community first as he explores selective logging contracts and possible joint ventures to drill for oil and gas within the new 246-square-kilometre reserve.

The band-run company, Lubicon Lake Band Ventures, hires community members to do road construction, clear the brush from the Atco electrical right-of-ways, as well as pipeline and lease sites in the larger traditional territory.

But breaking into the industry is a struggle. “It’s run off the buddy system,” said Sawan, estimating they only get contracts for half what they could do in the immediate area.

He sees contractors hire friends in the industry, paying for travel north, even when it would be more efficient to hire local. But the Lubicon are trying to compete by building expertise within the band and buying the right pieces of equipment. The financial settlement that accompanies the land deal might help there, too.

Brothers Will (left), 12, and Wakeen, 11, Gladue help set the table for their great grandmother, Lillian Whitehead at her home in Little Buffalo.

Gladue, 29, is a mother of three, holding down her first job because of the new Integrated Employment Training Program offered through the band. She’s one of 64 community members who participated in the 10-month course that covers everything from bookkeeping, to safety in the workplace and traditional teachings.

She now works for the tribal council, building social connections by writing a community calendar and delivering it door-to-door, checking in on people. She also organizes social evenings and art nights for families to meet psychologists in an informal setting. It’s a proactive way to address youth suicide and mental health.

She’s a year and two months sober, still working even though her trailer recently burned down from what’s likely an electrical fire. She moved her family to a vacant trailer with no running water and got her kids back into new winter clothes within a week.

“We’ve been through a lot and you’ve just got to keep going,” she said, with a shy smile and quick laugh. “Our band is stronger than ever.”

estolte@postmedia.com

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Elise Stolte is a columnist with the Edmonton Journal.

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