A ceremony in northern Alberta has marked the end to a decades-long fight for recognition that attracted international attention to the poverty of the Lubicon Lake First Nation.
The Lubicon were missed in treaty negotiations in the late 1800s and fought for 40 years for a land settlement that would bring much-needed housing, better education and health care.
Dignitaries from the federal and Alberta government were in Little Buffalo — located in Alberta’s Peace River region — on Tuesday as Chief Billy-Joe Laboucan officially signed off on the deal in front of band members in the Indigenous community’s school.
Watch below: A historic land deal was ratified in a small Indigenous community north of Edmonton on Tuesday. Tom Vernon reports on the agreement signed by the Lubicon Lake First Nation.
The Lubicon gained a global stage when they held a protest at the Calgary Olympics in 1988 and blockaded roads into the disputed area to draw attention to their plight. A United Nations committee and Amnesty International criticized Canada for its treatment of the First Nation.
WATCH: The Lubicon Lake Band has announced a $113-million land settlement deal in connection with a contentious 85-year-old land claim. Fletcher Kent has more on the lengthy battle.
Laboucan said people still talk about past disputes and things that happened in the community.
“That’s over. It’s time to move on and we have moved on.” he said. “I thank the people of Lubicon for being able to do that.”
After they were missed by British officials negotiating Treaty 8, the Lubicon spent decades in limbo, even after the federal government agreed in 1939 that they deserved title to their land.
The issue stagnated until the 1970s when oil and gas companies began carving through local traplines. By then, the Lubicon were so poor that diseases such as tuberculosis were a problem.
Negotiations were rebooted in 2014 by former Alberta premier Jim Prentice.
The deal signed Tuesday includes about 245 square kilometres of land and $113 million to rebuild the community of Little Buffalo.
Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, said no agreement can fully right the wrongs the Lubicon faced, but it is important to start making amends.
“Some may say that this has been a long time coming. That would be a gross understatement,” she said Tuesday. “This is not about patience. This is about the incredible persistence of your people to have your rights recognized and implemented.”
Bennett said the Lubicons’ fight awakened Canadians — and others — to the responsibility of recognizing inherent and treaty rights.
“Your fight became almost a talisman of what the fight for Indigenous rights was and meant, not only to Canada, but to the world.”
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said she remembers learning about the Lubicon when she was still a child.
“I thought about how kids from Lubicon Lake my own age must have felt knowing … that such a basic and obvious justice had been denied them and their parents, and their grandparents, and so many who came before them.”
Laboucan said in an earlier interview that the real work is just beginning. The settlement money is already tagged for essentials such as decent housing, a new school, better roads, internet, and an elders care facility.
Laboucan credited former chief Bernard Ominayak for his advocacy that let companies know the Lubicon had an interest in the land and discouraged them from working there.
In 1988, Ominayak staged a protest at the Calgary Olympics and blockaded roads into the disputed area.
“If that hadn’t been the case, we wouldn’t be here,” said Laboucan. “A lot of credit has to go to previous chief Bernard Ominayak and council, and all the chiefs before him.”
The Lubicon Lake First Nation is located about 450 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.