Lubicon: PERCEPTION Magazine Article

re-printed without permission from PERCEPTION Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter 1991


The Lubicon Lake Indians' fight for their land has left them dependent on welfare, and without faith in governments or the legal system

by Dale Stelter

Canada's aboriginal peoples have become the focus of attention in recent months, due to a number of events: the blocking of the Meech Lake Accord by Manitoba Cree MLA Elijah Harper, the stand- off involving the Mohawks in Quebec, and the multitude of road and rail blockades erected by natives across the country.

While the issues now being raised by aboriginal people cover a vast range of topics, many centre on land rights disputes. In some of these disputes, the natives involved have signed a treaty or agreement with the federal government in the past, but now contend that land has been wrongfully appropriated from them. Other disputes involve bands that have not signed a treaty, have therefore not been allocated any land upon which to pursue their way of life, but, as they contend, nor have they ceded "aboriginal title" to the land they occupy.

Included in the latter category are the Lubicon Lake Indians of northern Alberta (often known simply as "the Lubicon"), whose land rights dispute has now dragged on for more than 50 years. As is the case with many native bands across Canada, the Lubicon's land-standing struggle is filled with betrayal at the hands of both the federal and provincial governments, and has had devastating social consequences. To understand these consequences, some background about the Lubicon's situation is necessary.

When the federal government signed treaties with natives in northern Alberta at the turn of the century, the Lubicon Indians were not contacted. In the late 1930s, at the request of the band, federal officials visited the Lubicon, confirming that the band was a distinct society with aboriginal rights to the land, and promising a reserve.

For a number of reasons, including the onset of World War II, the reserve was never established. Consequently, despite frequent meddling by the federal government (such as unilateral reductions of band membership), the Lubicon continued living as they had for many generations -- gaining their livelihood through hunting, fishing and trapping, and having little contact with the outside world.

That changed radically in the early 1970s, when the newly elected Progressive Conservative provincial government, under Premier Peter Lougheed, launched its plan to open up the northern part of Alberta for resource exploitation. Indeed, in 1971, the government began building an all-weather road into the Lubicon's oil-rich traditional territory, which covers approximately 10,000 square kilometres. The area covered is north of Lesser Slave Lake and south of Fort Vermilion, bounded on the west by the Peace River and on the easy by the Wabasca River. Within this area, the main community, Little Buffalo Lake, is approximately 105 kilometres east of the town of Peace River.

Faced with an influx of outsiders, the Lubicon contacted the Indian Association of Alberta. The association advised the band to file a caveat, which had no force of law, but served notice that the title to the land was contested. The Alberta government refused to accept and file the caveat as required by provincial law at the time, so the Lubicon ended up in court, trying to get the government to obey its own law. The result was that the provincial government rewrote the relevant legislation, retroactive to before the Lubicon filed their caveat. A judge then dismissed the Lubicon's case as no longer having any basis in law.

Years of additional legal obstacles followed for the Lubicon, not only in the provincial courts, but also in federal courts as Indian lands come under the jurisdiction of the federal government. In fact, it soon became obvious that the Canadian government, the purported guardian of native rights, was aligning itself in opposition to the Lubicon.

So effective were the provincial and federal governments at stonewalling any progress that, in 1988, the Lubicon finally abandoned their hopes of getting any help through the courts. However, the oil companies continued to drill more wells. It is now estimated that $6 billion in oil and gas revenues have been taken from Lubicon land. Not one penny has gone to the Lubicon.

This wholesale invasion by the oil companies has had devastating effects upon the Lubicon. For example, between 1979 and 1982, more than 400 wells were drilled within a 15-mile radius of the Lubicon community of Little Buffalo Lake. In 1979, the Lubicon took 219 moose, their primary source of food. As the oil development drove the wildlife away, that number plummeted to 19 by 1983. During the same period, average income from trapping -- the Lubicon's main income source -- fell from more than $5,000 per trapper to less than $400.

As the Lubicon saw their livelihood destroyed, they were confronted with leaving their community for the bleak employment prospects faced by natives everywhere. For those who stayed, dependence on welfare increased from less than 10 per cent to more than 95 per cent, where it remains. The end result was that the Lubicon's traditional social structure was severely disrupted.

This combination of disruption, uncertainty and despair took a heavy toll upon the Lubicon people. Social and medical problems of all kinds proliferated. As one means of escaping the nightmare they were living, some community members turned -- as people everywhere do -- to alcohol. This led to alcohol-related deaths, family violence and break-down, and suicides -- all phenomena with which the Lubicon had had little or no previous experience. Still-born and premature babies also showed a dramatic increase.

In August of 1987, provincial government officials confirmed that nearly one-third of the approximately 500 Lubicon were suffering from tuberculosis. This figure compares with a Canadian average of one per 100,000 people. Provincial medical personnel also confirmed that a tuberculosis epidemic of such magnitude was likely caused by low resistance to infectious disease, which, in turn, is related to the destruction of the natives' traditional way of life.

The Lubicon received little sympathy from either level of government. For example, in 1983, the Lubicon submitted to the courts the sworn statements of band elders and a number of non- native experts, describing and assessing the effects of the oil development on the band's traditional way of life. By contrast, the provincial government and oil companies submitted no affidavits on traditional life. Yet a provincial court judge, who as a lawyer several years earlier had represented one of the controlling shareholders of the oil companies involved, dismissed the Lubicon's case. When the Lubicon appealed this decision, the judge who instated himself as the head of the Alberta Court of Appeal panel was not only the former lawyer for then-Premier Peter Lougheed's family, but also had given Lougheed his first job in his Calgary law firm.

The judge acting as head of the appeal panel then died, but the appeal panel upheld the original ruling. The Lubicon then went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which declined -- without explanation -- to hear the Lubicon appeal. However, one of the judges on the Supreme Court of Canada panel later left the bench, and was appointed to the board of directors of a large petro- chemical conglomerate with significant interests in the Lubicon's traditional territory.

Similarly, in 1986, a negotiator for the federal government met with Project North, an inter-church committee which promotes justice for aboriginal people. The negotiator denied that the Lubicon's traditional way of life was being destroyed by development. On the contrary, he made the following claims: the moose population in the Lubicon's traditional lands had not declined because of the development, but because they had been killed off by the natives; the development was favourable for the moose, as it cleared away old vegetation and allowed new growth; and, the miles of new oil roads made hunting and trapping easier for the Lubicon, since they improved access to remote areas.

These examples are only a small fraction of the legal and political machinations to which the Lubicon have been subjected. The best judges of the situation are, of course, the Lubicon themselves. As Lubicon Chief Bernard Ominayak states, "We've been forced into a position where our society is coming apart, and we're paying a very high price. We can no longer practice our way of life, and we're basically forced onto welfare."

"But we can't back down and keep receiving welfare. We've seen the destruction that welfare can cause. It's not something we're proud to speak of, but it's there, and we have to deal with it."

Chief Ominayak says that while the Lubicon continue to face dire social problems, the worst effects from resource development were felt in the early years after the oil companies moved in. "In a sense, the people are becoming accustomed to development and all the problems it causes."

Yet resolving their long-standing struggle over the land would not mean an immediate answer to all of the Lubicon's problems. "Our people have been on welfare for about 10 years, and we feel it's going to be a long, hard fight to overcome that dependency. And we have to have a settlement that will enable our younger people to start building a future for themselves."

It appears that the federal government is intent on not allowing the Lubicon that future. In October of 1988, after the Lubicon had abandoned their court battles, the band erected blockades to their traditional lands. Although armed RCMP, supported by helicopters and dogs, moved in and forcibly dismantled the barricades, the action prompted the Alberta and Canadian governments into reopening negotiations.

However, those negotiations came to an abrupt halt in January of 1989, when the (federal) government tabled a surprise "take-it- or-leave-it" offer of $45 million. The band declined the offer because, according to band advisor Fred Lennarson, it would have provided the Lubicon with a 250-square-kilometre reserve, and basic requirements such as a school, and houses with running water and sewers, but would have provided "the Lubicon people with absolutely no capability to once again become socially and economically self sufficient."

As Chief Ominayak said in a public statement, acceptance of the federal offer would have ensured that the Lubicon people "remain forever dependent upon welfare to support ourselves, and upon outsiders to manage and provide for us. We will never voluntarily accept such a humiliating and degrading future."

Indeed, the federal offer was full of convoluted conditions. As just one example, the Lubicon wanted to build a community health centre, a service which is common reserves in Canada. The federal government allocated $350,000 in its offer for the health centre, but said that the Lubicon would have to consult with Health and Welfare Canada. If Health and Welfare Canada had funding available in that fiscal year, the health centre could be built. The catch was that if the money was not available, the Lubicon would not get the centre, but the non-unusable $350,000 would remain as part of the total offer.

Another key issue in the negotiations was compensation to the Lubicon for oil and gas revenues taken from the lands to which the band holds aboriginal title, and for benefits the Lubicon have not received in the years since they were first promised a reserve. Both of these issues are common categories in compensation negotiations between Natives and the federal government. The federal government's answer to this demand for compensation was that, if the Lubicon accepted the "take-it-or- leave-it" offer, they could go to court to sue for compensation.

Understandably, the Lubicon had little faith left in the Canadian legal system. They were also severely constrained for money to pay legal fees. Further, the outcome of a court case based on aboriginal title could have been affected by clauses in the federal offer requiring the Lubicon to surrender their aboriginal land rights, and to cede all possible basis for such legal action.

Since January of 1989, the federal government has refused to return to the negotiating table. Talks with the Alberta government have started up several times, but have proven fruitless, so that, at present, no negotiations are taking place with either level of government.

Meanwhile, the Lubicon are finding other obstacles thrown up in their path. Daishowa of Canada, a Japanese-controlled forestry company, recently began operation of a large pulp mill, and announced that companies with which it had contracts would be logging on traditional Lubicon land this winter. This despite Daishowa's previous -- and unfulfilled -- commitments that it would not log on Lubicon land until the band's land rights dispute was settled and an agreement on environmental protection was reached.

Incidentally, the Lubicon wee never consulted when the Alberta government allocated their entire traditional territory, presumably with the exception of a future reserve, to Daishowa. Moreover, the federal Minister of Indian Affairs at the time, Bill McKnight, was also in charge of the Western Economic Diversification Program, which provided Daishowa with a $9.5 million subsidy.

Backed into a corner once more, the Lubicon notified Daishowa that they would protest the logging. Daishowa subsequently dropped its plans to log, at least for this winter, due to considerable media exposure. However, the logging infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, was already in place.

Subsequently, Brewster Construction Ltd., a wholly owned Daishowa subsidiary, began logging in an area approximately 120 kilometres northeast of Little Buffalo Lake. In fact, two swaths have been bulldozed across Chief Bernard Ominayak's personal trapline. As well, a contractor for Buchanan Lumber, another logging company, began harvesting trees about 50 kilometres northeast of Little Buffalo Lake.

That, then, is the log of the Lubicon band today: besieged by resource development companies, stymied in negotiations with uncooperative governments, and disillusioned with a legal system that offers them little hope.

Consequently, the Lubicon have for some time tried to raise public awareness of their case, and to garner public support. As Chief Ominayak says, "I'm asking that our people be better understood by the public at large. We hope that, at some point, there is enough interest from the Canadian public that we can put enough pressure on the government to resolve this matter."

It is perhaps little consolation for the Lubicon that they are, as Boyce Richardson writes in DRUMBEAT: ANGER AND RENEWAL IN INDIAN COUNTRY, "a casebook example of the frustrations native people in Canada have always encountered in dealing with the federal and provincial governments."

(Dale Stelter is a free-lance writer in Edmonton.)

Editor's note: Developments in the Lubicon's struggles were ongoing as we went to press. PERCEPTION hopes to publish periodic updates in the future.