Imagine a community with no running water, where temperatures bottom-out below minus 40 degrees Celsius and the closest bathroom is an outhouse across the yard, through knee-deep snow. Imagine a community where a single 900-foot house is home to three generations with hammocks, couches, and cushions as make-shift beds; where tuberculosis lurks in the close-knit quarters and gas flares light up the windows, outpacing the morning sun. Imagine a community which sustained itself and its environment for hundreds of years but was swiftly destroyed and degraded in just four short years of oil development.
Now imagine that community in the praised ‘first-world’ country, Canada. This is the plight of the Lubicon Cree.
Despite the location of their traditional territory in Alberta, the richest province in the country, the Lubicon Cree have been sentenced to a life of tragedy. Since the 1930s they have struggled to settle their land claim but today over 70 years later they remain without a reserve—shunned by both the provincial and federal government—and left to fight for their very existence.
The most recent challenge is that of running water, specifically a government proposal to construct running water and sewage capabilities for 10 Elders’ houses. Despite government claims that potable water resides in the community water tank, members of the community presently car pool to purchase water jugs from nearby towns. The water, explained Councillor Larry Ominayak, makes one’s skin itch and flake when showering. When boiled, an oily scum coats the top. Few dare to actually drink it.
Not surprisingly then, the Lubicon Chief Bernard Ominayak and the Nation’s council have been working to implement water and sewage infrastructure for the last few years but a lack of government funding has prevented any progress. In November of 2006 the government finally presented a proposal responding to the Lubicon’s initial cost assessment. Unfortunately funding has not followed. For the time being, say Government of Canada representatives, the government can only provide $250,000. The amount is enough to purchase sinks and toilets and pave driveways to support water trucks. The cisterns and the actual transporting of water and sewage that typically accompanies sinks and toilets are not accounted for. The transportation costs alone are expected to be $450,000 annually.
Yet in the March 2007 issue of Alberta Views (considered to be Alberta’s more progressive news magazine) the Canadian government failed to acknowledge any of these numbers. Instead unnamed officials attacked the Lubicon leadership, accusing the Chief and Council of holding their community hostage on the water issue as political leverage for the greater land claim.
As the official stated in the article:
"[The Lubicon have] decided strategically that they have a far more effective case in the public eye—with reporters and lots of other Canadians and particularly people overseas—on the basis that they live in Third World conditions with no running water or sewer. Frankly that is by choice," said the official, who requested anonymity.
Outraged by the government attack Lubicon Elder, Reni Jobin, responded in a letter to the editor. Jobin argued that it is not the Chief and Council but the Canadian government, which should be held responsible for the appalling Third World poverty and deprivation of Little Buffalo (the Lubicon community). He added that the situation is especially horrific as the Lubicon are surrounded by the multi-billion dollar oil and gas exploitation project known as the Alberta oil sands, now considered to be second only to Saudi Arabia as the largest deposit of oil in the world. In his letter he stated:
"The article contains purposefully malicious, reprehensible bald-faced lies told about the terrible Lubicon water situation by a cowardly, unnamed federal government negotiator—the type of person Canada sends to the negotiating table to negotiate Lubicon land rights with the Lubicon people."
The land negotiations Jobin referred regard the Lubicon claim to 10,000 square kilometres of traditional territory which was annexed by the Canadian government under false pretences of a treaty signing in 1899. The specific document was Treaty 8, one of the many numbered treaties, signed between the federal government and Aboriginal peoples, which patched together Western Canada’s creation. The controversial ‘agreements’ extinguished Aboriginal rights and title over traditional territory, ceding it to the government in exchange for a pittance of reserve land and annual provisions of funds, tools and other assets. Yet the Lubicon situation is particular; the people never even signed Treaty 8.
This detail, however, seems to elude the federal government as Canada’s position is that the Lubicons were represented by those Nations that did sign; that they merely wandered off into the bush and were distanced from cousins. These supposed cousins are the signatories to Treaty 8. As a senior member of the Aboriginal Business Unit in the Alberta Department of Energy explained, "the Cree are all close cousins so we could assume that even though we knew we’d missed some groups, the others could speak on their behalf." The official, who refused to be tapped cannot be named.
This same minister is also wrong. According to Chief Ominayak and his team of negotiators, entire nations were missed not merely supposed "close cousins." The result in northern Alberta, the region covered by Treaty 8, is an oxymoron: a unilaterally-defined treaty. Certainly, the most basic definition of a treaty is an agreement between two parties but even this fundamental relationship does not exist between the Canadian government and the Lubicon.
What’s more, the government has contradicted its own position on representation. In the 1930s the Canada’s initial Treaty stance suddenly changed. The government began to show interest in talking with the previously ignored communities. The reason: prized lumber. It permeated the traditional hunting and trapping territories of these Nations. As the same Alberta Department of Energy official explained, the government was happy to leave the Lubicon to their isolated existence under Treaty 8 until their land was needed for resource extraction. Suddenly the "close cousins" were no longer the strong representation they once were. The government recognized it needed consent from the Lubicon and the other Nations if it wanted to operate in the region. So it entered into its first of many negotiations. By 1939 the Lubicon were promised a reserve similar to many of the other First Nations who fall under Treaty 8. However, due to the onset of World War II and sabotage by government officials, funds were either distracted or denied.
The denial came by way of Malcom McCrimmon, a federal government official who was determined to clean up the years of poor book keeping of the status-Indian membership list. The list remains the government’s way of identifying Canadian Treaty Aboriginals for the purposes of treaty rights and benefits. Unfortunately, McCrimmon’s determination to reconcile the books was matched by a desire to save funds for the war effort. The result of his visit: he revoked status from more than half of the Lubicon community, transforming Lubicons into non-Indians over night with the simple stroke of a pen and digging the foundations for decades of identity struggles. The effects of McCrimmon’s brutal tactics were somewhat reversed in future years, with status returned to some Lubicon members. However, the government had set its tone and any trust that existed between the Lubicon and Canada was extinguished.
Tactics were never again as overt as McCrimmon’s blatant and unfounded membership slashing but even today, the very lands which the Lubicon occupy are contentions. The province has set aside the land for the promised federal government reserve but the legal status of the community is a provincial hamlet. This prohibits any exercise of Aboriginal rights and entitlement. The hamlet status came about in 1975 by an unprecedented legal manoeuvre where the provincial government retroactively changed land tenure laws during a Lubicon court session. The Lubicon were hoping to stall oil explorations until the land claim could be settled with the federal government but the provincial government’s legislative change made the caveat null and void. Effectively, the provincial government changed the law to win a court case and maintain ownership over the land; a complete disregard for the justice system.
But McCrimmon and the caveat case are just two of many questionable dealings that have followed the 1939 reserve promise. Other issues include oil company lawyers and politicians’ family friends turning provincial judges and refusing to hear Lubicon issues. As well, members of the provincial legislative assembly continue to hold direct personal ownership in oil wells for which they also write the legislation. This means that both the courts and government legislation are controlled by persons who personally benefit from oil extraction and have reason to see it continue regardless of the detriment it may cause on the small community of 500.
So, while Canadian officials claim to be doing everything they can to settle the deal, suggesting that the Lubicon are asking for too much, that they are holding their people hostage and are refusing to come to the negotiation table, these historical events suggests otherwise.
For this reason, in 1979 when the first oil and gas road was built into Lubicon territory the community was on guard, but little could be done to fight the Herculean team of oil companies and money-hungry government officials. Between 1979 and 1983 over 100 oil companies entered the territory, digging some 400 wells within a 24 kilometre radius of Little Buffalo and decimating the surrounding forests. In these four short years animal populations—the source of the Lubicon economy and food security—plummeted forcing 90 per cent of the community on to welfare. Health problems erupted ranging from physical ailments such as cancers, miscarriages and still births to emotional and psychological problems such depression, alcoholism and suicide; all of which were virtually unknown to the community prior to contact with the oil companies.
But the community fought back. Then newly elected Chief Bernard Ominayak, who continues to lead the fight today, embarked on an education campaign extending as far as Europe. The campaign led to support in two boycotts. The first was during preparation for the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988 in which Shell Canada, a leading oil giant, was sponsoring a celebration of the North American Indians in Calgary’s Glenbow museum. Curators world-wide boycotted the exhibit in support of the Lubicon struggle. The second was a consumer boycott of the Japanese timber company Diashowa due to its extensive logging on Lubicon territory. The company agreed to leave Lubicon lands until a settlement was achieved. It has yet to return.
The education campaign was further highlighted by a 1990 ruling of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). The UNHRC found Canada in violation of article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which protects ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities and ensure their right to culture, religion and language. The UN also called for immediate action to be taken by the Canadian government to stem the tide of destruction. In 2003, alongside an Amnesty International report criticizing Canada for the same reasons, the UNHRC reissued its response and as recently as December 2006 the UN stated that it continues to hold Canada in violation.
The World Council of Churches took the condemnation one step further in their 1993 report when they accused Canada of committing a a slow but ever-constant genocide of the Lubicon Cree. Government policies of oil regulation and its lack of will to come to a fair settlement continue to cause physical death and cultural destruction, claimed the report.
Evidenced by the UNHRC’s repeated calls and the current water dispute, the struggle in Little Buffalo has stagnated. After the widely publicized but essentially futile education campaign of the 1980s solidarity groups began to fade away and the Lubicon issue fell out of the headlines. Fortunately, the issue has recently received a breath of fresh air. Friends of the Lubicon Alberta (FOLA) has reformed in the province’s capital city, Edmonton and with a mandate to pressure both the federal and provincial governments to negotiate on the Lubicon’s three key demands—self-government, land claim settlement, and restitution—the group hopes to assist in furthering the Lubicon cause with a goal to resolve to the water issues as an immediate priority.
Unfortunately, for the broader struggle of survival and the land claim the political situation looks grim. Alberta is ruled by oil-hungry conservatives who have no intention of slowing the pace of development. The federal government is also conservative, albeit a minority but a majority looms over the next election and so favourable federal action to assist the Lubicon is hard to imagine. At the very least, the recent media attention and formation of FOLA offer potential rays of hope on the otherwise dismal horizon as Amnesty International aptly titled its report, it’s a "Fight Against Time".