In 1899, Treaty 8 was negotiated with several First Nations groups in Northern Alberta—North East Saskatchewan, Southwest parts of the Northwest Territories and later Eastern British Columbia—resulting in land surrender to the Crown. However, members of the Lubicon Lake Band were left out of the negotiations. This launched several decades of claims and disputes between Lubicon people and the federal and provincial governments. While the Lubicons continued to live in their traditional ways, the province of Alberta leased areas of the disputed lands for oil and gas development and provided permits for harvesting lumber using clear cut methods. These activities had negative impacts on the Lubicon people. The dispute became known across Canada and the world when Amnesty International and the United Nations became involved.
The situation faced by the Lubicon Cree was one of the longest unresolved human rights issues in Alberta. While a reserve was promised to the Lubicon people in 1939, 40 years after Treaty 8 was negotiated, it was never established. The subject of the dispute was 10,000 square kilometers of oil-rich forested land, which is north of Lesser Slave Lake and east of the Peace River. Traditionally, the Lubicon Cree lived almost entirely off the land. Considerable oil extraction, which started in the 1970s in the region, together with extensive logging, had significant reported impacts on the health, way of life, and culture of the Lubicon Cree. Yet, they never consented to this development on traditional lands for which they claimed to have never surrendered their rights.
Since about 1985, there were several attempts at negotiations with the federal and provincial governments regarding Lubicon land rights, but these talks all broke down. Hopes for a solution were raised in 1990 when the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) concluded that this situation endangered the way of life and culture of the Lubicon Cree. Further, the Committee said that “so long as they continue”, the threats to the Lubicon way of life are a violation of the Lubicon’s fundamental human rights (United Nations Human Rights Committee Communication No. 167/1984: Canada 10/05/90 CCPR/C/38/D/167/1984. Ominayak and the Lubicon Lake Band v Canada.) The UNHRC was assured by the Canadian government that it was negotiating a settlement that would respect the rights of the Lubicon Cree. Despite this, a settlement was not reached at that time.
The situation faced by the Lubicon Cree was one of the longest unresolved human rights issues in Alberta. While a reserve was promised to the Lubicon people in 1939, 40 years after Treaty 8 was negotiated, it was never established.The United Nations relied upon Canada’s desire to maintain its international reputation as a great respecter of human rights. However, bringing the Lubicon Cree situation to the attention of the international community in 1990 did not seem to produce the desired results.
The Lubicon Cree, however, did not let the initial disappointment deter them and approached the UNHRC again in 2003 and 2006. As noted by Alphonse Ominayak, Lubicon band counsellor, “They have to deal with this as soon as possible so we can get on with our lives before everything is totally destroyed. People are hoping the government will live up to its responsibilities” (Cotter).
The Lubicon people were able to negotiate agreements with two private oil and gas firms, giving the band a veto over some oil and gas drilling on the claimed land. The Lubicon claimed that they were able to negotiate these agreements despite the Alberta government’s urging the firms not to negotiate with the band (John Cotter, “UN Wants Ottawa to resume talks with Alta’s Lubicon band” 2 November 2005 [Cotter]).
On November 2, 2005, the UNHRC responded to the representations of a delegation from the Lubicon Cree, who had appeared before it in Geneva on October 17, 2005, to ask for further comment on the situation. In its report, the UNHRC said: “The Committee is concerned that land-claim negotiations between the Government of Canada and the Lubicon Lake band are currently at an impasse…. The state party should make every effort to resume negotiations. It should consult with the band before granting licences for economic exploitation of the disputed land” (United Nations Human Rights Committee, Considerations of Reports Considered Under Article 40, Canada 2005: CCPR/C/CAN/CO/5). These are quite strong statements which raised the hopes of the Lubicon Cree that the negotiations would resume and result in an appropriate settlement.
In late October, 2018, a historic land claim agreement was signed between Chief Billy Joe Laboucan, Premier Rachel Notley and Federal-Crown Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett. The agreement sets aside 246 square kilometers of land in the area of Little Buffalo. It also provides $113 million compensation from both provincial and federal levels of government. See: CBC News “Alberta Band settles long-standing land claim for $113 million and swath of land”[CBC News]. The enormity of this event seems to have been largely overlooked as many Canadians seem to be mesmerized with what is going on south of the border.
While the current settlement can never address the terrible living conditions suffered by the Lubicon Cree for decades, the Lubicon people are hopeful that it will improve the lives of future generations (CBC News). This significant human rights event was a long time coming but should be celebrated nevertheless.