In a fight against time
Parts of this article appear in the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative/Ten Days Leadership Guide, Restoring Right Relations. The article is written by Ed Bianchi, National Coordinator of the Aboriginal Rights Coalition, a coalition of churches, faith bodies and regional groups that works in solidarity with Aboriginal peoples to transform the relationship between Canadian society and Aboriginal peoples.
Imagine spending this winter living in a house with 10 to 15 other people. There is little insulation, and no running water. Heat comes from an old wood stove. There is no money to repair the cracked windows, broken doors, or the leaky roof over your bedroom. It’s a cold, hard winter with temperatures hovering at 40Ý below for weeks on end. At these times, trips to the outhouse in the dark are particularly bleak.
Food and drinkable water can only be bought an hour’s drive away, along a treacherous stretch of road that has already claimed many lives. There is much sickness... of the body and the soul. Drug and alcohol abuse is prevalent, domestic violence a common trouble. The elders are dying of cancer; many of the young have asthma or other breathing problems, even the babies.
Welcome to the life of the Lubicon people. In quiet dignity, and private despair, the Lubicon continue in this state while they wait for a land rights settlement with the federal and Alberta governments.
The air and water that surrounds the Lubicon have been contaminated by resource companies exploiting traditional Lubicon land. It is making the Lubicon sick, and they can no longer drink the water. Resource extraction has scared away most wildlife, so their traditional way of feeding their families has been disrupted. Some Lubicon are afraid to eat the remaining wildlife, since those animals could be contaminated by the vegetation and water they ingest. The traditional way of life is being destroyed.
For over 60 years the Lubicon Cree have struggled for recognition of their Aboriginal land rights. Promised a reserve in 1939, they still do not have a land rights settlement.
In 1899 Canadian government agents met with Aboriginal peoples throughout what is now called Northern Alberta and negotiated “Treaty Eight.” From the government’s perspective, Aboriginal peoples who signed treaties surrendered their title to their ancestral lands in return for a small ‘reserve’ for their own use and occupancy, as well as hunting, fishing and trapping rights to a larger area, monetary compensation and annual stipends. The Aboriginal peoples perceived treaties as agreements to share lands and resources.
The Lubicon were overlooked by government officials and they never signed a Treaty with the federal government. They retain Aboriginal rights and title to their traditional territory.
In 1990 the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) considered the Lubicon situation. It reviewed the delays experienced by the Lubicon in resolution of their land rights issues. It also considered the government’s failure to take action to protect Lubicon lands and resources while negotiations were (or were not) ongoing. And it rejected arguments from Canada that all “internal remedies” had not been exhausted. The UNHRC concluded that because the Lubicon were unable to achieve effective legal or political remedy, Canada was in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The latest round of land rights negotiations with the government of Canada began in July 1998. The Lubicon are regarding the lack of substantive progress with mounting concern and are beginning to question whether the federal government has the political will to reach an agreement. The Lubicon people have heard years of promises, then heard them broken again and again. They hover between cynicism and hope—hope for a settlement that would finally allow them to rebuild their community.
“Jubilee is therefore an attempt to deal with the redistribution of property and sharing of wealth so that access to resources could be restored every 50 years. The challenge of redistribution of wealth and resources falls upon the powerful and wealthy. The Jubilee is not about ‘social assistance’ or protecting the status quo. Jubilee is about community and health on the land where justice reigns.”
Reverend Stan McKay
“And you shall
hallow the fiftieth
year, and proclaim
the land to all its
“The resource companies don’t see the Lubicon as people with rights to their traditional unceded territory. They see us as an obstacle to be overcome in their relentless drive to exploit the valuable resources that our traditional territory holds.
We believe we not only have rights but that the Creator charged us with a special responsibility to protect and preserve our traditional territory, and only by preserving and protecting our traditional territory will it be able to support future generations of our people.
The oil and gas and forestry companies come from elsewhere and will move on after they have stripped our traditional territory of its resources. We have no place else to be. If we can no longer survive on our traditional lands, we will cease to exist as a people.”
Lubicon Chief, Bernard Ominayak
Daishowa versus Friends of the Lubicon
Between 1979 and 1983, more than 400 oil wells were drilled within a 15-mile radius of the Lubicon community of Little Buffalo. This development devastated Lubicon society and crippled their subsistence economy. Welfare rates soared from less than 10% to more than 90%. In 1989, the forestry transnational Daishowa was granted leases to clear-cut an area of northern Alberta that completely blankets the Lubicon traditional territory. Despite objections from the Lubicon, a Daishowa subsidiary began logging in 1990.
On May 4, 2000, the Daishowa versus Friends of the Lubicon court battle ended, signaling closure in a 12-year-long dispute between Daishowa and the Lubicon Nation. Daishowa made a commitment to the Lubicon Nation to not harvest any trees nor buy any fibre from the Lubicon area of concern until their land issue is resolved between the Lubicon and both levels of government, including harvesting rights, fish, and wildlife concerns.
Aboriginal Rights Coalition