(Saturday Night. February 1988)
When the Lubicon Lake Cree appealed for justice - and the reserve they'd been promised for more than four decades - two levels of government tried to eliminate them on paper. Then Alberta decided to celebrate Canada's rich native culture
By John Goddard
When oil development disrupted Lubicon life in 1980 Bernard Ominayak scrambled to save his people's land. Respected internationally, his cause has been sabotaged by Canadian officials.
"How long can we hold together?" he asks
Back in 1984, when the Tory government was green and gung ho and able to pride itself on high moral purpose, the new minister for Indian Affairs and Northern Development, David Crombie, asked himself what might happen if principles such as fairness and equity were applied to a long-standing Indian grievance. Crombie is a city boy. In size, shape, and kinetic energy, he resembles a well-hurled bowling ball, and he was known to be eager for a worldly, urban-oriented portfolio such as External Affairs, or Communications. He must have been disappointed to be assigned to the muskeg-ridden hinterlands. People close to him say he made the best of it by pretending Indian Affairs was Toronto, his home town, where he had spent six glory years in the 1970s being described in the newspapers as the "tiny, perfect mayor," and being adored by Torontonians for understanding the city as a family of ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, each meriting individual attention. Crombie recognized that native communities differ, too, in their histories, cultures, resources, and concerns, and figured that if he kept this in mind Indian Affairs might suit him after all. Maybe he could make a contribution.
Indian Affairs is one of the oldest bureaucracies on the continent, tracing its antecedents to the first British colonist ever to give an Indian a present and a promise of good will. Crombie distrusts bureaucracies. "I'm a de-centralist by instinct," he said shortly after taking office, musing that he wished to dismantle Indian Affairs and distribute power to the Indians. "I really do think that people if given the chance ... have a very great ability to look after themselves." Dismantling the department overnight was impossible, so Crombie, in the meantime, ignored it. He started travelling across the country virtually alone, carrying his own bags, meeting every native leader he could, and asking questions. His itinerary for the first three months included the Northwest Territories, Ontario, Quebec, Labrador, Nova Scotia, Alberta, and British Columbia. "Crombie is his own person," says somebody who once worked with him. "He reads a great deal, listens, absorbs what he is hearing, educates himself, and tries to unearth the truth of a situation."
It wasn't long before Crombie met Bernard Ominayak of the Lubicon Lake Cree. Crombie was visiting the Sturgeon Lake reserve, in the Peace River country of northern Alberta, to hear what was on the minds of the twenty-seven regional chiefs assembled there. "I've been an Indian only ten weeks," he told them. "I came to hear your views." And he sat all morning at a rectangular formation of tables in a low-slung meeting hall, his collar open, his ears cocked, his entire upper body sometimes bobbing rapidly to acknowledge that he understood the points being made. At the lunch break, he found Ominayak at the back of the hall and led him down a corridor to a storage room, where they cleared a space among stacks of tables and chairs for a Crombie-style one-on-one. "I like people to feel free to speak frankly, openly, and on the table," Crombie is fond of saying, "and you can best do that if you are alone."
Ominayak likes frank talk, too, whether in chummy circumstances or not. He is a reserved, laconic man, now thirty-seven years old, with observant, well-spaced eyes, and a handsomely proportioned physique, usually clad in chiselled cowboy boots, blue jeans, a white western-style shirt, and a black baseball cap with gold lettering that says, " Lubicon Lake Band." He was first elected chief in 1978, fulfilling the job so well the band once tried to vote him in for life, an offer he declined. He has since become the best-known local chief in the country - greeted with standing ovations at native gatherings - and a household name in Alberta. When the Alberta NDP leader, Grant Notley, died in a plane crash in 1984, Ominayak sat in the VIP section at the funeral. When the Pope toured Canada, Ominayak shook his hand on behalf of northern Alberta Indians. A European congress on aboriginal rights invited Ominayak as featured speaker last May, and the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization honoured him at an awards banquet in New York City in December for "valiant, creative, and effective" leadership. On such formal occasions Ominayak usually doffs his black cap, hanging it on one knee. He did the same when he sat with Crombie, signifying he didn't wholly buy Crombie's affable charm.
About native claims Fulton knew little.
Initially he believed the band's views were extreme, that this degree of abuse couldn't happen. "They were just overstating their case"
"We need all the support we can get," Ominayak sometimes says. By his count there are 457 Lubicon Cree, centred at Little Buffalo settlement 240 miles north of Edmonton. Until 1980, they made up a self-supporting, hunting-and-trapping community. Then massive oil development hit the area, generating revenues of $1.3-million a day for the oil companies and the Alberta government, but also destroying the wildlife and throwing almost everybody in Little Buffalo onto welfare. A reserve the federal government promised in 1940 would partly have buttressed the Lubicon Cree from the onslaught and entitled them to royalties to start a new way of life, but the land was never transferred, and the band's efforts to secure it have been met with brutal resistance. Milt Pahl, as Alberta native affairs minister, went so far as to tell the Alberta legislature in 1984 that the Lubicon Cree do not exist. "They may have as few as nine members," he said.
Resistance by the Alberta and federal governments to the band has been strong enough to attract attention from the international human rights community. Anwar Barkat, director of the programme to combat racism for the World Council of Churches in Geneva, studied the case in 1983 and concluded: "In the last couple of years, the Alberta provincial government and dozens of multinational oil companies have taken actions that could have genocidal consequences." The United Nations Human Rights Committee studied the case for three years, and concluded last summer that the rights of the Lubicon Cree were being seriously abused. A full hearing of the case is to be held later this year in Geneva.
A well-defined community facing clear-cut injustice is the kind of problem Crombie seems especially suited to tackle, and he had an idea. He had begun to hire what he called "special envoys" - freewheeling eminent personages unimpaired by bureaucracy - to study particularly long-festering native issues, and report directly to him. Emmett Hall, the former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, set off for the Whitedog Reserve in northwestern Ontario to determine damages to the Grassy Narrows and Islington bands from mercury pollution. Murray Coolican, a Halifax consultant and Robert Stanfield's son-in-law, opened hearings to find a fresh approach to settling aboriginal claims. Frank Oberle, a federal Tory backbencher at the time, joined the chiefs of northern Alberta to address unfulfilled treaty promises, hoping to design a model for native self-government. Other envoys were assigned to other tasks and, before long, the minister's staff chart began to resemble a molecular diagram: atoms careering through disparate orbits around a nucleus that was Crombie himself, the entire structure floating self-contained and free of the department. Crombie decided to recruit a special envoy to resolve the Lubicon case. Looking up from Ominayak's brief, he said, "I think it's time to make a deal."
At first nobody at Little Buffalo knew quite what to make of E. Davie Fulton, a reserved, noble, complex man once known as "Fearless Fulton." He arrived on Parliament Hill in 1945 distinguished by carrot-red hair, a Mulroney-type jaw, and a broad-voweled accent cultivated at St. John's College, Oxford. In his maiden speech, at the age of twenty-nine, he lectured Prime Minister Mackenzie King on the need, following the war, to discharge the longest-serving soldiers first, out of fairness; and by the end of his first term in opposition he had got his own bill passed, outlawing "Public Enemies," "Girls on City Streets," and other trashy comic books linked to juvenile delinquency. He matured to become John Diefenbaker's justice minister, accruing renown as a man of principle, and attracting the loyalty of young protégés such as Lowell Murray, Brian Mulroney, and Joe Clark, all of whom campaigned for him.
Davie Fulton underwent "a kind of evolution."
He reported the Lubicon claims were correct and just
Two episodes with the bottle a few years ago stick in the public mind now, but his handling of the situations further exemplified his unfailing sense of right and wrong. On a Saturday evening in 1979, when he was a justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, he drove drunk through Vancouver, nicked a car, drove on, rear-ended another, got arrested, charged, and fined $500, and had his licence suspended. He publicly confessed culpability, apologized to the two drivers, and praised the policeman for "exemplary behaviour." In 1981, a Vancouver hooker coyly cited "Davey F." as a client in a squalid autobiography called The Wendy King Story. Fulton sued, and King confessed in court she had never met Fulton, but the stress of the ordeal got to him, and he was caught driving impaired a second time. "I thought I had drinking under control but obviously I didn't," he says now. After a few days in jail, and treatment for alcoholism, he emerged to join the Vancouver law firm of Swinton & Company where David Crombie tracked him down and asked him to be a special envoy.
Fulton arrived at the Lubicon settlement on the evening of April 9, 1985. Little Buffalo is a quiet community of 350 people. The houses are prefab bungalows set well back from the dusty roads, and widely separated from each other by wood lots, spruce-rail corrals, and snow-covered fields where horses roam free. There is no main street, and there are no shops, except a confectionary with a gasoline pump. Fulton spent the night at the home of John Felix Laboucan, a bony, sinewy, aged trapper who speaks nothing but Cree. The two were smiling and washing dishes together when Ominayak came around the next morning.
Soon Fulton and Ominayak were riding in a helicopter northwards over Lubicon hunting and trapping territory - undulating bush country of spruce, jack pine, alder, and birch covering 8,500 square miles between the Peace and Athabasca rivers, an area the size of Wales. They reconnoitred crisscrossing seismograph lines, pipelines, roads, colonies of yellow-and-white ATCO housing units, and scores of nodding pump jacks painted bright playground shades of red and blue. Fulton expressed surprise at the extent of the work. Nearly 400 oil wells had been drilled within a ten-mile radius of Little Buffalo. Fulton also expressed surprise at the fire damage: 641 square miles of bush destroyed in the first three years of the oil boom. A fire through the Haig Lake area had razed two of John Felix Laboucan's five cabins and much of his registered trapping area. Oil work had trashed the rest. "I have seen the terrible effects of development," Fulton told about thirty community members gathered that afternoon in a tiny meeting hall, stuffy with cigarette smoke and moist socks. "I want to try to do something about it."
Fulton came across as gentlemanly and intelligent, but there was something about him that irritated Ominayak. When Fulton said he hadn't much experience with native claims, but had a sense of what was just and fair, Ominayak said working with someone from the government who was just and fair would be a new experience for the band. When Ominayak argued that the main cause of the band's problems was an effort by the Alberta government to crush the band with Ottawa's complicity - Fulton snorted under his breath and chopped the air dismissively with the back of his hand. "Everyone came up to me at the break saying, 'Kick him out,' " Ominayak says now. "But I thought, 'Maybe this guy should be given the opportunity to get fucked by Alberta too.' "
Over the next several months, Fulton read piles of documents, and shuttled between Little Buffalo, Edmonton, and Ottawa, undergoing what he refers to as "a sort of evolution." Initially he took the view, he says, "that the band's position was extreme, that these sorts of things couldn't have happened to them, and that, well, they were just overstating their case." He had thought all native peoples except those in the far north had been dealt with through treaties. "I now realize there are an appreciable number of Indians in Canada proper whose situations have never been settled," he says. "This particular band, God help them, was promised a settlement in 1940, and they're still waiting for it forty-seven years later. Their situation cries out for just and equitable treatment."
John Felix Laboucan still hunts oil development has decimated the Lubicon's income from trapping
In the past, the federal and Alberta governments have responded to the band's appeals for justice by trying to eliminate the Lubicon Cree on paper. By Ominayak's count, there are 457 Lubicon Lake Indians. By Ottawa's reckoning, there are 182; Alberta recognizes "as few as nine." Ottawa and Alberta partly take advantage of a misunderstanding that dates from May 29, 1899, around noon, when a delegation of civil servants, Mounties, and clergymen set out north from Edmonton in team-drawn wagons to sign a treaty with all Indians living between Lesser Slave and Great Slave lakes. To open the region to settlers and to gold seekers rushing to the Klondike, the federal government wanted the Indians to give up aboriginal title to their lands in exchange for small reserves, farm implements, medicines, an annuity of five dollars per person, and promises that hunting and trapping could continue. The toughest part was to find all the Indians. Equipped with maps bearing only a dreamy resemblance to what cartographers now know of northern Alberta and the Great Slave region beyond, the delegation travelled the two major rivers, the Peace and the Athabasca. The following summer, a second delegation covered a similar route, reporting to Ottawa that a total of 3,323 Indians had been brought into treaty, but fudging the fact that neither expedition had penetrated the wilderness between the two rivers. "There yet remains a number of persons ... who have not accepted treaty ... because they live at points distant from those visited," reported commissioner James Macrae, venturing to put the number missed at about 500."
Studies begun by federal genealogists now indicate several thousand Indians were left out, among them the Lubicon Cree, a collection of families trapping over a wide area, centred at Lubicon Lake. When word eventually reached them that a white man was passing out five dollars apiece to reserve Indians once a year on treaty day, a few of the Lubicon hunters travelled to collect the money too, the nearest reserve being a week away by wagon team at Whitefish Lake. An itinerant government agent paid those who showed up, adding their names to existing band lists. As a result, the Lubicon Cree went unrecognized in Ottawa as a separate entity.
"We are neglected," they pleaded in a petition to Ottawa on August 26, 1933, signed with Xs by the fourteen household leaders, and moving Ottawa to order the first Lubicon inquiry. C.P. Schmidt, the federal inspector of Indian agencies in Alberta, and Napoleon L'Heureux, a regional Indian agent, arrived by bush plane in the summer of 1939, to be met by a delegation headed by Alexis Laboucan, John Felix's father, who asked that the Lubicon Cree be recognized as a band, allotted a reserve, and extended the same privileges as other bands. "It was well noticeable at the outset," L'Heureux reported to Ottawa, "that these Indians are far different from those of Whitefish Lake, and other bands." Schmidt reported seeing gardens, rail fences, and good horses, adding: "I was very much interested in this band and found them clean, well dressed, healthy, bright, and intelligent: in other words, people who want to live and do well." Laboucan and the others showed them around the west end of Lubicon Lake, which Schmidt and L'Heureux described in their reports as a kind of oasis of good spruce, rich black soil, and open fields of hay. They recommended a reserve there of 25.4 square miles, calculated from their census of 127 people at one square mile for every five people as set out in Treaty 8. Ottawa approved, sending L'Heureux back the following year to map the reserve from the air. A ground survey was scheduled for the year following that. And the Lubicon case was nearly settled.
The first excuses sounded plausible. There was a war on. Surveyors were in short supply. Money for surveys was hard to come by. In fact, a zealous Indian Affairs accountant named Malcolm McCrimmon had forced a delay. He had been tidying up treaty lists with a view to tightening the budget, and his attention was drawn to the many names added over the years in the Lesser Slave Lake region. He demanded that anyone from a family added to a list after 1912 prove pure Indian blood on the father's side, a tall order among bush tribes and one McCrimmon undertook to enforce himself. He flew to Lubicon Lake on June 3, 1942, arriving at 5:30 p.m., the moment in history that ends the era of benign neglect and begins the modern period of officially sanctioned sabotage of the Lubicon Cree. "No speeches, we are pressed to leave," McCrimmon announced to those gathering around him, as recorded by a Father Roué, who was there. McCrimmon cut seventy-five names from a list of 154, paying annuity to half the people and refusing the rest. "I saw one of the principal Indians of Lubicon Lake brutally reduced to silence," Roué wrote, "when he started to speak in order to defend his rights."
Altogether, McCrimmon removed more than 700 people from band lists in northern Alberta, splitting communities, forcing entire families off reserves, and provoking a general uproar. Bishops, priests, government agents, and local M.P.s leapt to the Indians' defence. The member for Peace River, Jack Sissons (later the famous flying judge of the far north), declared himself "incensed," and summarized numerous complaints for the minister: "that striking these persons off the lists was arbitrary, discreditable and indefensible; that these were Hitler tactics; that the Government has broken faith with the Indians; that the action indicates that there is in the Department lack of proper knowledge of the Indians and the territory; that the Indians are being treated like dogs; that this is oppression of the weak by the strong; that these people have no-one to fight for them; that the Department is indifferent and unsympathetic to the welfare of the Indians; and generally that the action is contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the Indian Act." Two inquiries were held, one of them a formal judicial inquiry in 1944; both censured McCrimmon. But by then he was well established in the department and was left in charge of implementing the judicial recommendations. Most of the removals stuck.
McCrimmon did nothing to alter the Lubicon Cree as a community of hunters and trappers, but his action added to misunderstandings on paper about the band and made a farce of Ottawa's definition of Indianness. John Felix Laboucan, Fulton's host in Little Buffalo, was born at Little Buffalo Lake as a member of the Lubicon Lake people, got onto the Whitefish Lake band list in 1930, was cut by McCrimmon in 1943, was recommended reinstated by the judicial inquiry, and was kept off by McCrimmon. In 1979, he hired a lawyer and won recognition as a bona fide Lubicon Cree, but many others never regained Indian status, ludicrously dividing some families, including the fourteen children of Roger Letendre and Bella Auger, of whom five are deemed Indians, nine non-Indians. By 1943, McCrimmon was arguing in Ottawa: "The number of Indians remaining on the membership list at Lubicon Lake would hardly warrant the establishment of a reserve."
Bernard Ominayak was born at Lubicon Lake on April 3, 1950, and it is hard to imagine today where the Lubicon Cree would be without him. He remembers horseback riding through the woods along moose trails, and running through the reeds along the lakeshore with his brother Lenny, to scare mallard into the air for their father to shoot at from a canoe. When he was old enough, he travelled with the hunting parties, staying behind with the horses as the men fanned into the bush. In particular, he remembers the strong sense of community fostered by mutual dependence and seasonal celebrations. In late spring, families would return from their trap lines for a tea dance at Lubicon Lake, pooling their hides and canvases to create billowing tents, each with three fires burning in a row down the middle, around which everyone danced at night in crowded, throbbing circles in the direction the sun moves around the earth. At some point, the hunters would broach the question of the promised reserve.
When provincial officials arrived to say they were dismantling four houses, several Lubicon hunters strolled into the meeting with loaded rifles.
No bulldozers have appeared
Nobody understood what a government was or how to approach one, and they decided the only thing to do was to get thoughtful, observant kids like Ominayak into school. A local trader helped petition for a teacher, drawing a Quaker couple from Ohio, Rolland and Thelma Smith, who with the hunters' help built a log mission school at Little Buffalo Lake - five miles from Lubicon Lake because somebody in the Alberta government wouldn't let them build on land thought to be still earmarked as a reserve. One by one, Lubicon families moved to Little Buffalo so their children could go to school. Ominayak says Bible lessons reinforced his parents' teachings of right and wrong, and the virtue of respecting his elders. He won the prize for memory work one year, and was one of only four in his class to advance to the government school in Grouard, sixty miles south. He outlasted the others, but by grade ten was too homesick to continue.
At sixteen, he left Grouard for the family trapline at Bison Lake, to wander for the next few years literally and figuratively in the wilderness, like a prophet. He felt discontented and restless. Boarding school in another language and culture had unsettled his sense of himself. He was twenty-three and still drifting when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries declared an embargo against the United States and Europe, raising world oil prices and prompting the Alberta government to start building an all-weather highway east from Peace River to open Lubicon territory to oil development.
The president of the Indian Association of Alberta at the time, Harold Cardinal, responded by organizing all seven landless bands of northern Alberta into a group called the Isolated Communities, representing descendants of Indians missed by treaty. Ominayak started travelling to the meetings, sitting at the back with his cap on his knee, learning the issues, and studying how politics works. In 1975, the Isolated Communities filed a caveat, asking the provincial registrar to take notice that they claimed an interest in 33,000 square miles of land, meaning they wanted their hunting grounds off limits to oil companies until the federal government settled aboriginal rights. The provincial registrar refused the caveat, referring it to the Supreme Court of Alberta, which gave the government of Peter Lougheed time to pass Bill 29, outlawing the filing of such caveats, retroactive to when the Isolated Communities had filed theirs.
The Isolated Communities group crumbled, leaving Ominayak feeling alone against powerful forces he didn't comprehend. When he became chief in 1978 he knew he needed plans, and associates, and allies in strategic places, and he especially needed advice, so he spent evenings driving with a pocketful of change to the nearest phone half an hour away at Cadotte Lake. Mostly he phoned Fred Lennarson in Edmonton. A former assistant to Harold Cardinal, Lennarson is a tireless, impassioned man of forty-six with a colloquial way of talking that has its roots in Chicago where, as a teenager, he plotted combat strategy with a street gang called the Cool Gents.
To describe a particularly astute move by the band against Alberta, Lennarson will say, "All of a sudden this bunch of Indians was jamming up the works!" And to express especial delight in unearthing a confidential government memo, he'll say, "We whipped that baby out!" The informality belies a rare organizational prowess. When Ominayak said he needed allies, Lennarson made contact with national church groups, native organizations, opposition parties, and universities, developing a mailing list through which he inundated people with minutes of meetings, memos of phone conversations, letters to ministers, newspaper clippings, and periodic analyses. Slowly, he built what he calls a Lubicon support network. It now extends across the country, to parts of the United States, and to ten countries in western Europe through the European Support Groups for North American Indians, which held its third annual congress in Vienna last May with Ominayak as featured speaker.
Ominayak was organizing at Little Buffalo. He pried $300,000 out of Indian Affairs to establish a band office and a housing programme, the first government money to the band apart from the five-dollar annuities. Ignoring the political model Indian Affairs prescribed - chief and two councillors - he created an eleven-member council of community leaders, operating much as the fourteen household leaders had in 1933 when they all signed Xs to their petition. Sometimes council members meet as a group; mostly they just visit each other, Ominayak constantly making the rounds, heedful especially of old hunters such as John Felix Laboucan and his three cousins - Edward, Albert, and Summer Joe Laboucan - all in their seventies and eighties, who as repositories of Lubicon knowledge keep Ominayak from losing his sense of himself.
"I have one question on my mind all the time," Ominayak says. "How long can we hold together?" He is referring to the stress affecting the band since the oil boom hit in 1980. Trapping income dropped from $255,000 to $20,000 in five years. The number of moose killed annually dropped from more than 200 to nineteen. And early in 1981, the municipal affairs minister at the time, Marvin Moore, issued a ministerial order changing the status of Little Buffalo from native settlement to provincial hamlet, and bringing it under the authority of his department.
The department deals with hamlets not through a chief but through a "provincial advisory councillor," and the job went to Fleuri L'Hirondelle, a Métis rancher who opposed the band's claim. L'Hirondelle and regional municipal affairs personnel developed a town plan, and had streets built and street signs put up saying, "Ominayak Road," and "Laboucan Crescent." They went door to door selling two-acre lots for a dollar, and anybody refusing to buy was deemed a "squatter" or "trespasser," subject to letters from Alberta's deputy minister of renewable resources, F.W. McDougall, who threatened to remove Dwight Gladue, his wife, and four children from their home, saying: "Pursuant to Section 46(1) of the Public Lands Act, a person who occupies public land and is not the holder of a disposition authorizing him to do so shall be deemed a trespasser and any improvements [such as a house] created by him are the property of the Crown." Residents received property-tax notices, then demands to pay a "school board supplementary requisition" for a new school. Building permits for corrals were suddenly required by A.J. Facco, the director of land dispositions in the forestry, lands and wildlife department. Writing from his office in Petroleum Plaza, Edmonton, he notified John Auger, who had built a corral in Little Buffalo six years earlier: "It has come to the department's attention that you have constructed some fences and corrals in LSD 13 and 14 of section 11-86-14-W5th Meridian on Crown land on the north side of the road directly across from your place of residence. As I can find no record of any authority granted you [to do so] ... you are hereby notified... to remove those fences and corrals... within sixty days."
No-one knows what made Crombie cave in.
Maybe he lost some of his energy after the elation of 1984.
Or maybe Indian Affairs just wasn't his thing after all
The Alberta NDP leader at the time, Grant Notley, called the hamlet programme "the lowest kind of provincial government treachery." Ominayak called it "a double whammy." It undermined the Lubicon land case in two ways: hamlet status and capital construction attempted to turn Little Buffalo into "occupied Crown land," exempt from ever becoming part of a reserve; and the deeds, tax notices, and building permits were attempts to have band members legally recognize provincial jurisdiction. Almost everybody at the settlement except the L'Hirondelles cancelled the two-acre deeds, returned tax notices, fought the school proposal, and left the corrals standing, and, when provincial officials arrived to announce the dismantling of four houses deliberately built outside hamlet boundaries, Lubicon hunters strolled into the meeting with loaded rifles, a gesture that so far has kept the province from calling in the bulldozers. Not long afterwards, word reached Little Buffalo that the Glenbow Museum in Calgary was planning an exposition of rare artefacts of North American Indian cultures gathered mostly from museums in the United States and Europe. It was to be the main nonsporting cultural event planned for the Winter Olympics, to be sponsored by Shell Canada Limited - which operates in the Lubicon area - and entitled "Forget Not My World." Ominayak was appalled: "They come into our area, destroy our livelihood, and tell the world about rich native culture." Using the Lubicon network, he called for a boycott, rallying support from museum ethnologists in New York, Washington, and two dozen European cities. "Such an exhibition," wrote Feliz Valk, director of the Dutch Museum Vwor Volkenkunde, in support of the boycott, risks being seen as "a kind of cover-up, a nice facade hiding the real world of today's native peoples." The Glenbow reduced the scope of the show but went ahead under a new title, "The Spirit Sings."
Standing up for themselves has heartened the Lubicon Cree in some ways, but since 1984 most families in Little Buffalo have been touched by tragedy. Six young people burned to death in a crash with an oil-company truck on the provincial highway built for oil development. A mother of seven children burned alive in her house after drinking and smoking. A father of six committed suicide. A six year-old girl playing unattended with a bullet blew away part of her intestine. And last fall, forty-two people were found to have active tuberculosis, an infectious lung disease that thrives on poor diet and overcrowded housing. A total of 117 people are on drugs to treat exposure to the disease, making the outbreak one of the worst in Canada since the Depression.
The Alberta civil servants dealing with Little Buffalo refuse to see their actions in context, and stay ignorant about native people. Facco and McDougall will not comment, but Neil Gibson, the tax man, says, "I'm just doing my job," and, "They're no different from any other ratepayer." Barb Deters, Alberta's public relations officer on the issue, defends the government by saying the Lubicon Cree are to blame for their problems. "They're overhunting," she says to account for the moose decline. She does admit to misgivings. "Some of the stuff that has happened ends up looking fairly heavy-handed and quite unacceptable to the ordinary guy, but maybe in the scheme of things it is acceptable to the government." Jim Horsman, Alberta's attorney general with responsibility for native land rights, says a substantial number of people in Little Buffalo are not Indians - the Malcolm McCrimmon position. Horsman refers to them as "Métis," saying they are a provincial responsibility. "So we are going to proceed with the process - continue to provide Métis with the services that they are entitled to as Albertans and to improve their living conditions and their lot."
Davie Fulton submitted an eighty-eight page report to Indian Affairs minister David Crombie in February, 1986. Fulton called the report a "discussion paper" because it was to be the basis for direct negotiations towards reconciliation. The report is a model of dispassionate logic, presenting two key questions: how much land should the Lubicon Cree get, and should they have a say in wildlife management outside their reserve?
On the land issue, Alberta participants agreed to honour the 1940 commitment to 25.4 square miles, except if the band asked for more, in which case Alberta was offering nothing. Indian Affairs participants said Little Buffalo was home to 182 status Indians, who should get a reserve at Lubicon Lake calculated at one square mile for every five people: 36.4 square miles. The Lubicon Cree refused to be split, insisting on entitlement to 91.4 square miles for 457 people.
Fulton held that the band's position was essentially correct and just: Alberta should hand over the original 25.4 square miles, and the federal government should pay Alberta for the rest of the land the band had coming, the exact area to be worked out in negotiations, but close to what the band had determined.
On the question of wildlife management, Fulton was moved to write a ten page essay displaying the stretch of mind and heart that made him so admired as justice minister, challenging Alberta, Ottawa and, indirectly, the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta. The band asked not that oil extraction cease but that enough wildlife be protected to enable the old hunters to continue to make a living, and to keep young men in touch with Cree life as they adjusted to a wage economy. The band proposed a wildlife-management programme; Alberta argued it had no special obligation to the Lubicon Cree to protect wildlife; and Ottawa backed out of the question saying wildlife management was provincial jurisdiction. Fulton determined that federal treaties guarantee Indians the right to hunt, trap, and fish throughout their traditional lands for as long as those lands remain unoccupied, which Fulton said most of the Lubicon territory is. "And if the Indians have a continuing right to hunt and trap there," Fulton wrote, "then surely they have a continuing and pressing interest in the maintenance of the resource - the wildlife without which that right becomes a mockery." He endorsed the band's wildlife-management proposal, and took an indirect shot at the Alberta court while doing so. In 1983, Mr. Justice Gregory Forsyth had refused the band an injunction on oil development pending a land settlement, saying: "The financial harm done to the Provincial government and the oil companies would far outweigh any harm done to the band." Fulton took the opposite view: "It is the continuation of wildlife which is threatened by development, not development which is threatened to the point of extinction by the continuation of wildlife." A conservation programme administered with good will could make oil extraction and hunting compatible, he wrote . But if an irreconcilable conflict between the two interests arises, the band's interest in wildlife must take precedence.
Fulton submitted the first draft of his paper in December, 1985, and David Crombie replied, "Full steam ahead" towards full negotiations, bringing the Lubicon case closer to resolution than at any time since 1940. But while Crombie's reply was in the mail, Alberta did to Fulton what Ominayak had foreseen at the end of their first meeting . Milt Pahl, then Alberta's native affairs minister, called a "major news conference" to announce the Lubicon case was resolved. He said he and Crombie had agreed to allot 25.4 square miles and end the matter. "Mr. Fulton's job is now done," Pahl said. Crombie protested weakly that he had agreed to no such deal, but by then he was losing control of his portfolio. Within weeks all of Crombie's special inquiries got mired in bureaucracy and forgotten, except the one assigned to Emmett Hall, which had been the first and which settled the Grassy Narrows case in a way all parties considered fair. Crombie left Fulton hanging. He thanked Fulton for an updated report, but declined to respond to it in detail, and refused to make it public. What made Crombie capitulate can only be guessed at; he no longer comments on the Lubicon case. Maybe after the rush of the 1984 electoral landslide, and after tearing around to meet Indian leaders, he lost some of his energy. Maybe he realized he could not ignore a department like Indian Affairs indefinitely. Maybe Indian Affairs just wasn't his thing after all; in April, 1986, Crombie switched departments to become secretary of state, and minister of multiculturalism - urban-oriented portfolios that demanded he spend lots of time in Toronto.
Almost two years have since passed. The sole gesture from the new Indian Affairs minister, Bill McKnight, has been to appoint a brash, cocky, fortyfive-year-old Calgary lawyer named Brian Malone to undertake a new Lubicon investigation. Malone began in October, telling the band to "stop the nonsense," and declaring he believed the legal owner of the disputed land to be the province of Alberta.
Ominayak somehow keeps going. He and thirty other band members drove to Calgary last fall to be honoured guests at a rock concert in jubilee Auditorium starring Buffy Sainte-Marie. A local support group organized the concert "in support of the last stand of the Lubicon." The emcee asked Ominayak to say a few words. He entered from the wings, bringing the near-capacity crowd of 2,400 people to its feet in a thundering ovation that continued as Ominayak walked to centre stage in the same unassuming but determined way he crosses his yard at home to feed his horses - hands swinging slightly at his sides, head lowered, eyes shaded by the black cap with gold lettering. " We don't have much to sing about," he said when the applause faded,addressing the biggest audience he had ever stood before. "But it sure feels good seeing all you people."