(Equinox. May/June 1985)

Last Stand of the Lubicon

With no reserve and no rights, a small band of northern Alberta Indians battles for its ancestral home

Article by John Goddard

Edward Laboucan photo
Out on his trapline, Edward Laboucan leads his dogs through an increasingly barren forest near Otter Lakes, Alberta.
A Lubicon Cree, he has seen his band's territory devastated by oil related development.


Bernard Ominayak, chief of the Lubicon Cree of northern Alberta, unwrapped some pieces of dried moose meat and placed them on a rough wooden table. Next, he took a block of bannock, carved it into thick slices with a hunting knife and spread the slices with margarine. A large pot of tea made from melted snow came to a boil on the wood stove, and Ominayak, looking rested and relaxed for the first time in a week, sat down to a trapper's breakfast.

"Ah, this is the life," he said, sitting on an upturned log and glancing out the window to see the sunlight catch the tops of frosted spruce trees. "No politics, no noise, no hassles."

It was early December. The temperature in the one-room cabin, having dipped to minus 20 degrees over-night, was rising to a comfortable level, unlocking the musty, cozy smells of log walls, heavy blankets and wool socks hanging from rafters overhead. The only sounds were those of crackling flames from the cast-iron stove, the rustle of a weasel rousing itself in the cabin's walls and Ominayak snapping apart lengths of dried meat into bite-sized pieces.

Then came a new sound: the dull, distant churning of an internal-combustion engine. The noise grew louder, and a bright yellow Caterpillar tractor eased into view through the trees 100 yards away, pulling two mobile housing units over the snow on sets of giant skis. Another tractor appeared behind the first, dragging a flatbed loaded with fuel tanks to power the houses and the machinery. Ominayak, his face tightening, uttered a single one-syllable word and watched the convoy pass.

Gas flare photo The surprise of bulldozers breaking the early-morning stillness was really no surprise at all for Ominayak. Unlike other Indian groups in the country, the Lubicon Cree were never allotted a reserve of land that might serve as a buffer to an influx of newcomers into the band's hunting and trapping territory. The federal government promised them a reserve 45 years ago but broke its promise. It was, then, with no title, no special rights and no protection that the band watched as oil companies began exploring the area in the 1950s. In the 1960s, the oil company interest intensified, and in the late 1970s, a gravel highway was bulldozed 70 miles cast from Peace River to the settlement of Little Buffalo, where most of the 350 Lubicon Cree and three Métis families now live. By 1980, the boom was on: 30 new wells were drilled that year, more than 40 the following year, more than 100 the year after that. The huge hunting and trapping territory where the Lubicon Cree had prospered undisturbed for generations was virtually floating on oil. Thousands of square miles of rolling bush country once the domain of abundant moose, marten, fisher, lynx and beaver - were uprooted by the work of 10 major oil companies. Dozens of crews bulldozed roads, cleared work sites, installed pumps, built pipelines and, in the process, opened the region to commercial loggers and sports hunters. By last December, the invasion was nearly complete, penetrating as far as Ominayak's cabin at the northern limit of the territory, 70 miles north of Little Buffalo.

Faced with the destruction of their way of life, Ominayak and the band have gone to court. They are seeking environmental control over 8,500 square miles of territory, hoping to limit oil development to a level where hunting and trapping might continue. Also, they claim a 69-square-mile reserve, with mineral rights, for the band's exclusive use. So far, the band's efforts have brought them only hardship.

The Alberta government, currently grossing more than $1.2 million a day on royalties from the Lubicons' 8,500-square-mile traditional territory, is not prepared to limit the boom. It is not, in fact, prepared even to yield the 69 square miles - and its royalties - that the band claims for a reserve. Alberta, the Cree believe, wants all the land and all the royalties. To achieve its ends, it has mounted what the Lubicon Cree see as an invasion of its own into the Little Buffalo settlement - a comprehensive programme, coordinated among several departments, to harass and intimidate the band into abandoning its claims. The programme's aim is to convert Little Buffalo into a provincial hamlet, forcing residents to live like white people, and its rationale is the province's claim that the Lubicon Cree are remnants of other bands that already have reserves. The Lubicon Cree, the province maintains, are "squatters on Alberta Crown land." Either they recognize provincial jurisdiction, give up their land claim and buy property in the hamlet, or they will be forced to leave.

Federal Indian Affairs Minister David Crombie does not accept Alberta's position. He says that the Lubicon Cree are indeed a separate band of 347 members and, as such, are entitled to a reserve of at least 25 square miles, if not the full 69. But Crombie, the minister of a government that is committed to being friendly to the provinces, is reluctant to force his view.

The prospect of the band's demise has attracted national and international attention from church leaders. A year ago, Archbishop Edward Scott, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, led an interfaith delegation of bishops to Little Buffalo and said afterward: "In the short time we were there, the violations of human rights became apparent to us. Traditional hunting and trapping trails are crisscrossed by private oil company roads. The traditional economy, which we believe was intact a few years ago, is in a state of ruin. Everyone is very confused about the sudden lack of control over their lives."

Aerial photo of Lubicon territory
Once the home of moose, marten and lynx, the land of the Lubicon Cree is now crosshatched with roads and seismic cutlines. The wildlife has moved elsewhere.

Around the same time, Anwar Barkat, director of the programme to combat racism for the World Council of Churches, based in Geneva, concluded more strongly: "In the last couple of years, the Alberta government and multinational oil companies have taken actions that could have genocidal consequences. As a result of the conscious and deliberate provincial and oil company campaign to undermine and subvert the band's traditional economy, moose have practically disappeared from the band's traditional area. Even more destructive is the deliberate provincial and oil company effort to subvert the legal rights of the band members."


News reporters who have followed the story for the past year or so sometimes refer to Ominayak as "the young Lubicon chief." I reminded him of that when he picked me up at the airport in Peace River one night last winter. "Ha, I don't feel young," he said, chuckling behind the wheel of his pickup truck as we began a fast one-hour drive east to Little Buffalo. He stooped his broad shoulders slightly in mock proof. The lines beneath his eyes told of the strain he had been under, and when he began talking about his life, he did sound old. Ominayak is only 34, but his past seemed part of a long-lost era.

"This used to be just a wagon trail, all cut out by hand," he said, turning onto the gravel road to Little Buffalo, his aquiline face illuminated by the lights from the dashboard and by a bright, perfect halfmoon. "It used to take two days to get to Peace River, and in the spring, we'd get stuck up to our axles in mud."

He grinned and fell silent for a few minutes. Politicians and judges in Alberta dealing with the Lubicon case have had trouble believing that the Cree way of life differs substantially from their own, as the Lubicon Cree maintain. In fact, most Canadians who see Indians riding snowmobiles and living in modern houses doubt that a distinct native way of life has survived the 20th century. Ominayak began to sketch his own life story, conveying as he did a sense of being part of an interdependent community directed informally by senior hunters and trappers.

Photo of native teenager
"Support the Last Stand of the Lubicon."
A native teenager wears his concern for the future on his cap.

"I was born in my parents' cabin at Lubicon Lake," he began, his voice barely audible over the lovelorn country music on the radio. "Life was like a cycle. In the fall, the men would hunt, trying to store as much food as possible for the winter. Then my dad would go up to his cabin at Bison Lake [70 miles north], trap for three or four weeks and come back with fur. My mother took the fur for drying, and my dad went out again. My mother, my brother and I were alone most of the time. Then, as I got a little older, I got to go with my dad when he went hunting. If somebody shot a moose, he'd call the others over, and they'd split it up between them.

"In the summer, we had tea dances, usually two of them each year. It was a way for all the people from different camps to come together. Everyone would come in their wagons and help put up posts for a big dance house. Everyone brought a moose hide or a piece of canvas from a tent - people mostly lived in tepees in the summer then. They'd cover the dance house and build three fires inside. Some people would make drums out of deer or moose hide, and at night, everyone danced in a circle around the fires, the way the sun rotates around the Earth.

"Everyone would bring different roots and herbs with them, too, that they had picked the year before and dried over the winter for medicine. They'd bring these to be blessed. As I got older, I was one of the kids who took the bags of herbs around the circle. It used to get so crowded, we'd have to take turns coming into the dance house.

"At some point, all the hunters would gather to talk about problems, what are the good hunting areas and things like that. They passed a pipe around. And usually, someone made home brew and the men drank it, but just one night, that's it. Since the road came in in the late'70s, some of the younger guys have started drinking quite a bit.

"One of the problems the men saw was that we didn't have a reserve. They were afraid that some-day, people would come in and take over. They got this from Indians living in other places. But nobody knew how to make a connection with the federal government. Guys like my father, Summer Joe and Edward and John Felix saw that they needed someone to deal with the land claim and they tried to get us to stay in school as long as possible."

Ominayak geared down and pulled as near to the shoulder as he dared to give an oncoming oil truck room to pass.

"The [Roman Catholic] missionaries had built a school at Little Buffalo Lake in 1954, and my brother, Leonard, and I started going when I was 8. It was a boarding school, but all the families started moving to Little Buffalo to be with their kids. In those days, the missionaries were about our only contact with the outside world. I learned a lot from them. They used to talk about different places, different towns and different kinds of people - white people and other types of Indians.

"Later on, I went to the government school in Grouard [60 miles south]. When I was there, I had a chance to visit the reserve at Whitefish Lake, which is near Grouard, and I saw how they were getting help with housing and all that. We were still living in shacks and tents.

"When I was in grade 10, I decided to quit. My people were here. So I went trapping with my dad for two or three years and started to get involved in community affairs. About eight years ago, I ran for council [there are two council positions and one chief]. I got elected. After two years, I ran for chief, and I've kept getting elected ever since. Through all that time, the people never forgot we still didn't have a reserve."

The truck headlights picked out a sign saying Little Buffalo, and Ominayak turned off the road to the right. In the moonlit darkness, free-roaming horses stood by the roadside, silhouetted against the snow. Others stood together in groups in spruce-rail corrals. The houses were mostly modern bungalows, but their arrangement was that of a traditional Indian settlement. They were situated well back from the road and widely separated from each other by woods and snow-covered fields. There were no shops and no businesses. There was no main street and no street activity. Many of the men, said Ominayak, were away trapping. He drove another mile to the western end of the settlement and parked in a lane between a storage shed and his house.

The reason that the Lubicon Cree never got a reserve stems from an oversight by the federal government in 1899. That year, a federal delegation travelled through northern Alberta to sign Treaty 8 with the Indians. As with other treaties across the country, originally undertaken by the British Colonial government in 1781, the purpose of Treaty 8 was to acquire title to as much land as possible for the Crown, preparing the way for settlement and mining. In exchange, Indian groups were granted reserves, small cash payments and annual allowances, in perpetuity, of $5 a person. But the delegation travelled mostly along the two main navigable rivers, the Peace and the Athabasca, missing several groups in between, including those at Lubicon Lake. Because these groups were isolated and their land would not be useful to anyone else for some time, their inclusion in the treaty system was given a low priority.

Photo of line cabin
More out of habit than hope, the older trappers, such as Summer Joe Laboucan, return to their line cabins every year. There is little left to catch but squirrels.

Word of the treaty eventually reached Lubicon Lake. The people there understood little about it, only that other Indians were getting $5 a year and some kind of protection over hunting, fishing and trapping. To get part of their due, some Lubicon members began traveling once a year over a rough trail to Whitefish Lake, where a federal Indian agent distributed $5 to each Indian on Treaty Day. All people native to the region who "lived an Indian way of life" were eligible for the payments regardless of whether they had yet signed Treaty 8. The Indian agent at Whitefish Lake simply added the Lubicon names to his pay list.

Unfortunately for the Lubicon Cree, a misunderstanding developed. Because the Lubicon Cree names were on the Whitefish band list, Indian Affairs officials in Ottawa came to believe the Lubicon Cree were part of the Whitefish band and therefore not entitled to a separate reserve. By the 1930s, however, the Lubicon Cree were pursuing their claim to a reserve through Indian agents in the region. In 1939, C.P. Schmidt, the Alberta Inspector of Indian Agents, was sent to examine their claim. He was the first government employee ever known to have visited Lubicon Lake.

"I was very much interested in this band," Schmidt reported to Ottawa in mid-August, 11 years before Ominayak was born. "I found them clean, well dressed, healthy, bright and intelligent - in other words, people who want to live and do well. They have log shanties for winter use. At the time of my visit, they were living in tents and tepees. I saw a number of small gardens and potato patches all fenced in with rails. I noticed also that they have very good horses." He concluded that the Lubicon Cree constituted a separate band and recommended a reserve between Lubicon and Little Buffalo Lakes.

Photo of children
Facing an uncertain future, a new generation of Lubicon Cree has inherited a dying hunting and trapping economy. To date, there is nothing to take its place.

Schmidt's superiors accepted the recommendation. They calculated that at 128 acres a person times 127 people, the band was entitled to about 25 square miles. An aerial survey was conducted, and by 1940, the reserve boundaries were drawn on a map. But a ground survey was also required. Canada was at war in Europe, though, and funds and manpower for the official survey were scarce. The survey was postponed, and the Lubicon Cree remained without a reserve.

To that time, the federal government's failing of the Lubicon Cree stemmed from simple neglect. In 1942, however, the government began actively working against the interests of the band and against the interest of most of the other bands in northern Alberta. That summer, a man named Malcolm McCrimmon arrived from Ottawa to see that treaty pay lists were in order. judging from his reports, McCrimmon thought the Indians were getting something for nothing, and he rewrote the eligibility rules. He arbitrarily decided, with tacit approval from Indian Affairs, that anybody who was added to a pay list after 1912 was not eligible to be on it at all, a decision that affected most of the people at Lubicon Lake. He also stipulated that "an individual must furnish acceptable proof" that his male ancestors were of pure Indian blood, a difficult demand for people whose births were unrecorded.

McCrimmon removed the names of more than 700 people from treaty 7 pay lists in northern Alberta. At Lubicon Lake, he cut 90 names from a list of 154. McCrimmon also recommended that no reserve be created at Lubicon Lake. There were not enough eligible Indians there, he said, to merit one.

The Alberta government was not party to McCrimmon's deletions, however, and continued to maintain records of the proposed Lubicon Lake reserve. During the early 1950s, the province sent repeated reminders to Ottawa that Alberta was willing to cede a 25-square-mile reserve at Lubicon Lake, with mineral rights. The province pressed for a decision because oil companies were asking to explore the area, and it was necessary to know what was out of bounds as Indian land. McCrimmon, who had been promoted in Ottawa, replied that Lubicon Lake was not a good place for a reserve, that perhaps one should be created somewhere else and that no mineral rights should be granted.

In 1954, the Alberta government issued Ottawa an ultimatum. Tell us the status of Lubicon Lake within 30 days, it stated, or we will consider the area Alberta Crown land. Ottawa did not reply.


The morning after I arrived in Little Buffalo, Ominayak's wife, Louise, was up early, putting a coffee pot on the electric stove and rousing the children for school. When a school van arrived outside, Louise stood at the front window to watch them go.

"We used to look out here sometimes and see moose come out of the woods, right into the front yard," she said, looking out to a fenced garden in the middle distance. She is soft-spoken, like her husband, but less fluent in English. "That was a few years ago. The moose aren't around anymore."

Photo of Edward Laboucan
After a full life near Lubicon Lake, Edward Laboucan finds himself a "squatter on Alberta Crown land."

She took a photograph album from a shelf and opened it, flipping through snapshots of herself drying moose meat at a cabin and of various posed groupings of her 13 brothers and sisters. She paused at a magazine photograph showing her husband shaking hands with the Pope. The Treaty 8 chiefs had pointedly chosen Ominayak to represent them last September at the Pope's arrival in Edmonton. Ominayak was wearing a new moose-hide jacket with beaded bluebirds on the front and back. She went to a bedroom and brought out the jacket shown in the picture. "I made it," she said, her smile broadening. "I was invited to go with Bernard to meet the Pope, but I didn't want to. I went to Edmonton once, and I got nervous. There were too many white people."

That evening after supper, Ominayak and I hoisted a snowmobile and some gear into the back of the pickup and set out for his trapline near Bison Lake. At least once a week, when he can get away from the office, Ominayak makes the rough three-hour trip to his cabin along old trails that the oil companies have widened into roads.

Turning north off the main road opposite Little Buffalo, we passed 16 signs sticking out of the snow like sovereign flags staking the domain of Husky Oil, Norcen, Texas Pacific, Mobil Oil and other companies. On the horizon, a low cloud above the trees glowed an unearthly orange. "From a flare pit," explained Ominayak. "They're burning off gases at one of the storage batteries."

The bush was heavily colonized. We passed a number of camps - instant motels composed of trailer units brought in on flatbeds and laid down in a row. On the roads, traffic was heavy with pickup trucks, seismic units, oil tankers hauling crude, and tractor-trailers carrying bulldozers and drilling equipment. The smell of spruce needles mingled with those of grease and diesel fuel. The most common sight was the nodding pump-jack, appearing at regular intervals in clearings and dead-end side roads. At one point, Ominayak pointed to a gate: "Sometimes they chain the gates shut to keep out competition, but it interferes with trapping too."

The land we were driving through was not part of the reserve proposed in 1940, but it was part of the traditional hunting and trapping territory over which the band now claims rights. The band's claim has taken a slightly different form in recent years. Getting the 1940 reserve under Treaty 8 is no longer seen as worthwhile, partly because the federal government reneged on many of the promises made at the treaty signing. Another problem is that reserves under Treaty 8 are for status Indians only, and McCrimmon's pay-list deletions left more than half of the Lubicon Cree without Indian status. Accepting a reserve for less than half the people would divide the community and leave it in worse shape than it is now. As a result, Ominayak and the band are pursuing a land claim based on aboriginal rights.

Photo of Josephine Laboucan
Skilled in the traditional ways, Josephine Laboucan tans a moose hide. Moose, though, are fast disappearing.

Fortunately for the band, the Supreme Court of Canada reaffirmed the concept of aboriginal title to land in 1973. In theory, the ruling means that native groups who did not sign treaties can claim rights to lands they have continuously used and occupied. The federal government, though, has taken a narrower interpretation, stating that native groups can only claim aboriginal rights to land in regions where no treaties were signed. The Lubicon Cree live in the Treaty 8 region but believe that since they did not sign the treaty, they, too, are entitled to a land settlement based on aboriginal rights. Such a settlement would include all Lubicon Cree, status and nonstatus, and would afford them greater control over much of their territory, as promised but not delivered by Treaty 8.

The former federal Liberal government was sympathetic to the claim - up to a point. It accepted that 347 people are entitled to a reserve, with mineral rights. John Munro, when he was Indian Affairs Minister, twice asked the Alberta government to cede the 1940 area immediately as a step toward a final land settlement. "Within the last few months, the band's situation has become progressively worse," Munro wrote to Alberta Native Affairs Minister Milt Pahl a year ago. "As a result of encroachment of industrial development in the Lubicon region, the autumn [fur] harvest was negligible. The threat to the band's traditional way of life is even more pronounced. If this band is to survive as a group and is to preserve its identity, a reserve is urgently needed.... The governments of Canada and Alberta have the responsibility to ensure that every conscientious effort is made to relieve the band's suffering. At the very least, we should be motivated by a sense of social justice."

Pahl refused to cede any land, arguing later in the Alberta legislature that the Lubicon band does not exist. There are "fewer than a dozen" bona fide members of the band, Pahl said, basing his contention mostly on the confusion between the Lubicon and Whitefish bands in the 1930s and the McCrimmon deletions of the 1940s.

Ominayak and I talked about some of these issues on the way to his trapline. He seemed intent on making two points: one was that hunting and trapping are still being pursued, even by people like him, with full-time jobs, thus perpetuating a Cree way of life passed down from aboriginal times; the other was that oil development is destroying hunting and trapping, and aboriginal ways are breaking down. About halfway to his trapline, Ominayak took a detour around Haig Lake to introduce me to two trappers who could substantiate both points.

Their cabin was easy to get to. A wide road, solid enough for transport trucks, had been cut directly beside it. Inside, 80-year-old Albert Laboucan and "Bearskin" Joe were sitting in the pale light of an oil lantern drinking tea from tin mugs. A frozen rabbit lay by the door next to a chain saw. Furs from a fisher and several squirrels were stretched overhead to dry. From dozens of nails on the walls hung hats, traps, pots, moccasins, chequered shirts, washbasins and dog harnesses. Laboucan held court, sitting at the edge of a bed near the wood stove, speaking in rolling Cree, with Ominayak nodding his head at intervals and interrupting occasionally to translate.

"I was born about a mile from here, and I've been trapping more than 60 years. I don't feel right that these guys come in and take over my trapline. Those big trucks go by until way past midnight and start again early in the morning, shaking us in our beds.

"For the past three years, we catch hardly anything, mostly just squirrels. They pay $1 each. Now we're low on moose meat. I have some left, but we eat baloney, too, from the store.

"Another problem is the community has broken down more or less totally between the elders and the younger people. In town, I've tried talking to my grandchildren, and they just go out and bang the door. I feel they don't even hear me. When I was growing up, it was just the opposite. There was a connection between the older and younger hunters."

Now, the skills he spent a lifetime honing are worthless, he said. He can no longer be respected as a provider. Young people do not seek his advice on tracking a moose because there are no moose to track. The changes amount to more than a tragedy for one old trapper; they are the beginning of a breakdown in the entire social structure.

It is difficult to gauge to what degree the community now suffers materially and psychologically. Trappers, however unproductive, continue their life in the bush out of habit. Teenagers in town, although shy and obviously bored sitting around the band office, are polite and respectful. Nowhere in the community can a visitor detect the undercurrent of bitterness or hostility toward white people that is so prevalent in many northern native communities. The destruction wrought by newcomers is too recent to have sunk into the collective psyche. But there is a sense of impending disaster, a sense that the community, its economic and social base cut from under it, is about to crash.

Photo of pump-jack
Like alien steel flowers, pump-jacks have blossomed rapidly throughout Lubicon territory in the past four years. More than 100 wells were drilled in 1983 alone.

Problems are beginning to show in statistics. Drinking appears to be on the rise, and welfare payments are up. In November 1983, welfare to the settlement totalled $9,241 - going mostly to infirm people and single parents. A year later, payments doubled to $18,455.50. Oil companies prefer to hire experienced workers from southern Alberta, and some men in Little Buffalo are reluctant to work for the oil companies anyway: the men cannot live by trapping because the land is being ripped up, but they do not want work that helps rip up the land.

After visiting the two trappers, Ominayak and I drove around to the other side of Haig Lake to see 71 -year-old John Felix Laboucan. We walked half a mile in from the road to a tiny cabin, where we were greeted by four yelping sled dogs.

"I had to laugh at myself when I left my other cabin to come here today," Laboucan said in Cree, his groggy manner and dishevelled hair indicating that we had awakened him. "I used to have a heck of a time getting all my fur onto the toboggan. Today, I had this one little bag with a few squirrels."

Laboucan's production was badly hurt by a fire that swept through the area in 1982, destroying three of his five cabins and burning out much of his trapping area. Alberta fire fighters, like those elsewhere in the country, allow such fires to go unchecked, giving their attention to fires that threaten populated areas or timber considered valuable to loggers.

"I was doing all right on the part of my line the fire didn't touch," he said, his bony features outlined by the light from a lamp. "But this year, the oil companies have moved into that area too. I haven't killed anything: one moose, one fisher, one marten, three beavers and some squirrels in four months. I don't know what to do. I love trapping. I don't want to give it up. But there's nothing left here to hunt or trap. It's not safe even to run my dog sled because of the trucks."

Photo of Bernard Ominayak
Seeking a sense of social justice: Bernard Ominayak, the 34-year old chief of the Lubicon Cree, ponders his next move in the struggle against the Alberta government.

To justify the programme, the Alberta government maintains that most Little Buffalo residents are Métis. Native Affairs Minister Pahl says that there are fewer than 12 bona fide Lubicon Cree. The rest, he says, must be something else. They must be Métis.

In truth there are only three Métis families in Little Buffalo, totalling 14 adults. But the Cree believe the Alberta government is determined to take the Indianness out of Little Buffalo - to undermine the land claim by integrating the residents into the mainstream of Alberta society.

The first step four years ago was to set up a kind of puppet regime, usurping the authority of the elected chief and band council and the council of community elders. The Department of Municipal Affairs installed Fleuri L'Hirondelle, the head of a Métis family in the community, as provincial advisory councillor - a kind of appointed mayor in charge of administering all new community programmes. L'Hirondelle was against the land claim, figuring that he and his family, as Métis people, might have to move if a reserve were created. Ominayak had invited L'Hirondelle and a few other likeminded families to join the land-claim struggle as aboriginal people, but L'Hirondelle had refused. Municipal Affairs also appointed a four-member council, like a municipal council, of L'Hirondelle's supporters.

After a municipal council was created in Little Buffalo, the Department of Municipal Affairs began to set up a municipality. In April 1980, it was announced that Little Buffalo would be divided into two-acre plots and that all adult residents could buy a plot for $1. Municipal Affairs employees from Edmonton went door-to-door taking applications. Some residents complained later that they thought they were applying for a new house or participating in a census or, in the case of one old woman, applying for free firewood. Ominayak soon realized that taking a plot amounted to acknowledging the land was the province's to sell, undermining the land claim. In the end, most residents withdrew their applications.

In January 1981, Little Buffalo's status changed from "Indian settlement" to "provincial hamlet." A hamlet plan was drawn up showing the two-acre plots. New roads were put in at a cost of $300,000. Each road was named, and street signs went up. Improvements were made to the community hall at provincial expense. A new provincial school was proposed.

All the laws that apply to provincial hamlets took effect. Residents became subject to municipal and school taxes. Development permits were required for all new construction. Any resident not applying for land tenure was required to apply for a land lease. Residents applying for neither were subject to fines and threatened with demolition orders.


Dwight Gladue, a stocky 30-year-old man with relaxed, easygoing gestures, was one of a number of residents who received threatening letters for not applying

for land tenure. In 1982, Gladue and his wife, Roseanna, and their four children were living in a house trailer when the Alberta government agreed to help him build a house through the Rural Home Assistance Programme (which has become a major source of employment in Little Buffalo in recent years). In November 1983, Gladue received a letter from B.H. Johnson, the forestry superintendent at Peace River, stating that he must either buy his lot through the land-tenure programme or take out a lease. Gladue ignored the letter.

Four months later, he got another letter, this time from F.W. McDougall, deputy minister of renewable resources in Edmonton, saying: "Information on our files reveals that you have constructed a home on Lot 60 without proper authority from this department.... I would urge you to make the appropriate application to either lease or purchase this lot or remove your improvements."

'Who is this guy McDougall?" Gladue asked when I met him at the band office. "He's in the city, he's never trapped here, and he thinks he can call me a trespasser."

Photo of oil signs
Signs of progress or cultural tombstones? The World Council of Churches recently wrote: "The Alberta government and multinational oil companies have taken actions that could have genocidal consequences."

John Auger, a tall man with a lean, rugged face, is a few years older than Gladue. He received a letter last September from A.J. Facco, director of public lands in Edmonton, saying: "It has come to the department's attention that you have constructed some fences and corrals ... on Crown land.... It is required that you remove those fences and corrals within 60 days from the date of this letter. In the event that you need land for grazing purposes, I would suggest that you contact the district forest officer in Peace River for assistance in locating available Crown lands to meet your needs."

"Nobody will take down those fences," said Auger, unless they take me away first."

The Lubicon Cree face annihilation. Their game is disappearing, their social structure is crumbling,their houses and corrals are threatened with demolition. Yet it would be easy to save the Lubicon Cree. All that is needed is determination by the federal government to act out of what John Munro calls "a sense of social justice." The federal government has the authority to negotiate a land settlement with the band and to demand that the province honour the agreement. That would not mean that oil development must cease, only that it proceed at a more modest level, where trapping and oil interests could coexist as they did prior to 1980.

The band is not likely to want to live exclusively by hunting and trapping forever. What is important is to protect hunting and trapping now, for the old men who cannot change, and to ensure that hunting and trapping continue on some level to enable future generations to supplement their diet and incomes. The transition from a life based on a hunting and trapping economy to one based on wage jobs takes at least three generations, anthropologists say, if a people are to retain their basic sense of identity. Eventually, the band will want to see the oil under its reserve lands developed. Having the mineral rights means that the band could prosper, perhaps even make millions of dollars a year until the resource is exhausted in 20 or 30 years. Properly managed, that money would enable the band to build schools and technical colleges, hire good teachers, become trained in rewarding jobs, establish businesses and become partners with the oil companies. judging from experiences elsewhere in the country, the process would likely not be easy, but the possibilities exist.

Indian Affairs Minister Crombie made a gesture early this spring that made the band hopeful. He selected Davie Fulton, a former federal justice minister, to study the Lubicon Cree's case. "I am appointing a special representative," said Crombie, "to give the matter the time and attention it needs and to find out what's good for the band."