For the past 12 years, I’ve been the unofficial pastor to the Lubicon Indian people who live in Little Buffalo, some 130 km east of Peace River. And on a few occasions Lubicon Chief Bernard Ominayak has invited me to sit in on negotiations with federal and provincial government officials.
Ten years ago I was invited to a special meeting with MLA Ray Martin, the leader of the opposition at the Alberta Legislature. There I met a dozen people of all walks of life; lawyers, environmentalists, university people, the president of the Indian Association of Alberta, business people, engineers, a Mennonite minister.
Except for one man I knew, they were total strangers. I was sure that someone had made a mistake by inviting me and felt I had no business there. Martin announced that he was launching the Lubicon Settlement Commission of Review and that he was asking all of us to be members of it. Our task was “to investigate, compare, assess and report publicly the government’s offer, as well as the Lubicon’s comprehensive draft settlement agreement, the relative merits of each proposal and how they would allow the Lubicons to once again become economically self-sufficient.”
I was more than a little shocked when out of nowhere Martin announced that I was to be the facilitator for the first meeting to be held immediately. Our task was daunting but we went to work with a series of eight public hearings held in Edmonton as well as in Little Buffalo and Peace River, so that by March 1993, we were able to table our report.
This past Christmas, I went again to celebrate Christmas Eve with the Lubicon. I took the opportunity and visited as many homes as I could in the limited time that I had. People received me warmly in the old shacks and dated trailers they call home.
Electric power is the only amenity they can claim. There is no running water anywhere in the community. Outdoor toilet facilities is the fate of all, year-round. Many houses are heated by wood they cut and a few more fortunate homes have a heater in the middle of the house.
It reminded me of our home in Donnelly in the 1940s when I was a boy. In a corner was a 40-gallon barrel in which we would haul the snow that melted as water for our various needs. A lone electric bulb hanging from the ceiling lighted the house. Incredibly, 60 years later, the Lubicon people are living in similar conditions.
When Treaty Eight was signed in 1899, the Lubicon – who lived far from the rivers that were the highways of the time – were missed. At various times in the 1920s and ’30s the Lubicon contacted the government to sign the treaty. They were recognized as a legitimate band in 1939, although no treaty was signed.
In the 1970s, it was discovered that the Lubicon people were sitting on some of the richest sub-surface resources in the world. Oil companies and forest companies moved into their traditional territory, destroying traditional Lubicon hunting and trapping economy and forcing the Lubicon onto welfare in order to survive even though these valuable natural resources rightly belong to the Lubicon by virtue of their unceded aboriginal rights.
Negotiations to settle outstanding Lubicon land rights with the federal government are ongoing – but at a snail’s pace. In spite of our commission’s recommendations, 11 years have gone by, with setbacks accompanied by tragedies touching many families.
The Lubicon over time invited me to sit at the negotiating table with them, which I have done on a few occasions. The impression I had was the government negotiators were dragging their feet. Travelling all the way from Ottawa to Little Buffalo they usually returned to Ottawa after a few hours at the table, instead of pursuing the issues for several days at a time and getting the job done.
As Christian people, we are called to pursue justice and fairness. The Chretien government has made many promises to the Lubicon people but has been faithful to very few.
Each of us can help the cause of justice by writing to the prime minister who has publicly stated that part of his legacy would be to solve the Lubicon issue.
Ask him to follow through on his promise and settle justly with the Lubicon people before he leaves his post as prime minister later this year. Express your concerns to: Prime Minister Jean Chretien, House of Commons, Ottawa K1A 0A6. A line or two will do. No stamp is required.
Taken from an article in the Western Catholic Reporter