This weekend I joined a group from the Alberta Federation of Labour on a trip to visit the northern Alberta community of Lubicon Lake Cree First Nation at Little Buffalo Lake. The purpose of the visit was to attend the grand opening of a new school hockey rink that the AFL and its affiliates, some regional businesses, and human rights advocates had funded.
Like many small rural communities, the recreational options of the young people in the Lubicon Cree community were limited. As we approached the hockey rink on Sunday, we immediately saw with our own eyes the level at which the new hockey rink had been embraced. Imagine a hockey game with fifty or more players on the ice. It was organized chaos. It was absolute fun.
Over the years I have heard about and read the odd article about the Lubicon Cree, but until this weekend I did not have any idea of what their community looked like or the circumstances that have prevented them from achieving Treaty rights over their traditional lands (and I admit to still not completely understanding the intricacies of the situation). In the early 1900s, the Lubicon Cree were among a number of First Nations communities located between the Athabasca River and Peace River which were overlooked by the federal Indian Agents acquiring Treaty signatories. Since that time, the Lubicon and the federal government have failed to successfully complete Treaty negotiations. Because the Lubicon are not signatories to any Treaty, they do not have any rights and do not collect royalties on the rich oil and gas deposits sitting under their traditional land (their community is not a Reservation, but a Hamlet located in Northern Sunrise County).
The lack of Treaty has taken a toll on the quality of life of the Lubicon Cree. I find it amazing that in a rich province like Alberta, we still have impoverished communities like Little Buffalo Lake, which lack the most basis amenities that most Canadians take for granted: running water.
At the moment, there is no running water system or water wells in the community. Clean water is trucked in to the community from Peace River (sometimes infrequently).
The current political situation inside the Lubicon Band presents its own challenges. Speaking with a number of community members yesterday, I was told of a bizarre story of long-time Chief Bernard Ominayak declaring himself Chief-for-Life (which is not allowed). After he delayed the 2009 Council elections, I am told that members of the Lubicon decided to hold the elections on their own in accordance with Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development guidelines.
The vote resulted in the election of new Chief, Steve Noskey. Unfortunately, with accusations of financial irregularities being leveled by some community members against the ousted Chief, the federal government classified the leadership change as an internal leadership dispute and appointed an interim administrator to take responsibility for the housing and tuition funding provided by the federal government (you can read a background of the situation here).
Not immune from controversy of his own, readers may remember Mr. Noskey from his other role as the Chair of Board of Trustees of the Northlands School Division, which was fired by Education Minister Dave Hancock last year.
As most things in politics, I am sure that the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these stories. I am sympathetic to the Lubicon Cree in this situation, because I find it difficult to believe that the appointment of an outside administrator will make life better for the Lubicon. Ottawa does not exactly have a stellar record of making life better for Canada’s First Nations people.
Back in Edmonton, I live in a downtown condo where my biggest inconvenience is the two days a year when the running water is shut off for maintenance. Instead of feeling guilty about my quality of life, I feel optimistic that, despite complex problems facing us on the streets of our own city and in communities like Little Buffalo Lake, we can work together to build a better future for Canada. As I do my small part in helping build this better future, I will not forget what I saw at the Lubicon Cree First Nation this weekend.