October 1983 : World Council of Churches Letter to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau  

WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES
PROGRAMME UNIT ON JUSTICE AND SERVICE
COMMISSION ON THE PROGRAMME TO COMBAT RACISM

The Rt. Honorable Pierre Trudeau
Prime Minister of Canada
Ottawa K1A 0A2
Canada

Subject: Concerns of the Lubikon Lake Indian Band, Northern Alberta

Mr. Prime Minister,

The World Council of Churches' Sixth Assembly met in Vancouver, British Colombia and was privileged to hear testimonies and experiences of native Canadians as they struggle to gain recognition and respect for fundamental rights to their native lands. The Assembly expressed its solidarity with those struggles .... "and in the light of the First Ministers Conference on the Canadian Constitution on aboriginal rights, title and treaty rights, urges the Federal and Provincial Governments of Canada to recognize and enact aboriginal titles, aboriginal rights and treaty rights in the Canadian Constitution in a manner and form acceptable to the aboriginal peoples themselves. We further urge these governments to make no amendment or alteration to aboriginal and treaty rights without the consent of the affected people".

At the Assembly in Vancouver, senior staff of the World Council of Churches were approached by members of the Lubikon Lake Band from Northern Alberta. They told us of 50 years of alternating abuse and neglect at the hands of both the Provincial and Federal Governments of Canada. In the last couple of years, the Alberta Provincial Government and dozens of multi-national oil companies have taken actions which could have genocidal consequences.

Given the very serious nature of the charges made by the representatives of the Band, staff of the WCC Programme to Combat Racism undertook an investigation of the situation. Thousands of pages of supporting documentation were made available by the Band. It is our understanding that the same documentation was made available to the members of your Parliamentary Standing Committee on Indian Affairs last December, when the Band made a desperate plea for support from your government. Inexplicably, that support has not yet been forthcoming for reasons that we do not understand. We are now supporting their appeal with this letter directly to you as Prime Minister.

Briefly the history and current situation of the Band are as follows:

The traditional lands of the Lubicon Lake Indians were isolated and inaccessible until recently. Consequently the Band was missed by the Treaty 8 Party and SCRIP Commissioners and was not officially recognized by the Federal Government until the first government party visited the area in 1939. Band members were promised a reserve by federal officials in 1939, but were then "forgotten" until the early 1950's. In the early 1950's federal officials were reminded of their promise to provide the Band with a reserve but decided that the land which had been selected and set aside in 1939 was too isolated and inaccessible: they therefore tried to talk the Indians into a more "administratively convenient" site. The Indians refused to consider an alternative site and federal officials responded by deliberately trying to wipe out the Band as a distinct group with land rights. Methods used by federal officials to wipe out the distinct nature of the Band included transferring the names of the Band members to the membership list of other bands without their knowledge or consent, advising Band members that they could receive treaty benefits only if they transferred to other bands, and falsely telling Band members that they could "try" enfranchisement and later be put back on the treaty list if they didn't like "living like a white man".

While considerably complicating Band history and membership, the effort of federal officials to wipe out the Band as a distinct group ultimately failed and the existence of the Band was re-affirmed by order-in-council in 1973. The land situation of the Band was left unresolved, but the Band's traditional territory remained isolated and inaccessible and the Indians were therefore able to continue pursuing their traditional lifestyle.

About ten years ago the Alberta Provincial Government began construction of an all-weather road into the Band's traditional area. The clear purpose of the road was to open the area up for development. Faced with the prospect of a significant influx of outsiders into their traditional area, the Indians tried to file a caveat with the Provincial Government putting outsiders on notice that they retained unabrogated aboriginal title to their traditional lands. The Provincial Government refused to accept the caveat and the Indians asked the courts to force the Province to follow the legally prescribed procedure and file the caveat. The Province asked the court to postpone the hearing of the case while they "tidied-up" the relevant provincial legislation, during which time they re-wrote the law, making the changes retroactive to before the Indians tried to file their caveat. In light of the rewritten, retroactive legislation, the court dismissed the Indian action as no longer having any basis in law.

A couple of years ago the Provincial Government and dozens of multi-national oil companies invaded the Band's traditional area in force. They made no effort to seek an equitable or fair or just settlement of the Band's well-known and long-standing land claim. Instead they deliberately sought to undermine the traditional economy of Band members, to subvert the legal rights of Band members, and to destroy the will and the ability of Band members to resist Provincial and oil company exploitation of the Band's traditional area.

In the last couple of years provincial officials have deliberately allowed fires in the Band's traditional area to rage unchecked, burning up thousands of acres of boreal forest used by Band members for hunting and trapping. Traditional Indian hunting and trapping trails have been turned into private oil company roads, posted with no trespassing signs and protected by guards and gates. Provincial and oil company workers have been instructed to deliberately bulldoze Indian traplines and to scare game out of the area by firing rifles off into the air, instructions which they have followed with such vigor and enthusiasm that one of them described their destructive activities "almost like a competition". Recently local hide and handicraft buyers have been told not to buy from Lubicon Lake Indians.

As a result of this conscious, deliberate provincial and oil company campaign to undermine and subvert the traditional economy of the Band members, revenue from trapping, the Indians' main source of income, is down by more than half. Previously a trapper could earn as much as 6 to 7,000 dollars a year: the last year's income from trapping was down to only 2 to 3,000 dollars per trapper. Moreover indications are that this year the trapping season will be significantly worse than last year.

Prior to last year, development activities were restricted largely to the winter months, when the ground was frozen, permitting the transport of heavy equipment. Most of the animals trapped last year were caught early in the season, before last winter's development activities had taken their full toll. However part of the work done by the oil companies last winter was to construct a network of allweather roads in the Band's traditional area. These roads have permitted development activities to continue yearround, as well as open up the area to sport hunters from outside.

In the past the meagre income earned by trappers was supplemented with food obtained by hunting. It was only by a combination of hunting for food and trapping for income that the Indian people were able to survive. Moose were plentiful and easily available and supplied the primary source of food. However, as a result of the conscious and deliberate provincial and oil company campaign to undermine and subvert the Band's traditional economy, moose have practically disappeared from the Band's traditional area.

Even more destructive than the campaign to undermine the Band's traditional economy is the deliberate provincial and oil company effort to subvert the legal rights of the Band members.

A couple of years ago the Provincial Government declared the traditional Indian community of Little Buffalo Lake, where most Band members live, to be a "provincial hamlet". They then subdivided the new provincial hamlet into two-acre plots, and offered to either give or lease the two-acre lots to the Indians who live on them. Leasing the lots or accepting them as gifts jeopardized Indian land rights by in effect accepting the Provincial Government's jurisdiction over the traditional Indian lands.

It has been alleged that when the Indians, concerned about the legal effect of leasing the lots or accepting them as gifts, refused to participate in the Provincial Government's hamlet and "land tenure" program, provincial officials told one old woman, who can neither read nor write, that she would receive free firewood if she made her mark on a certain provincial application form. In fact she was being asked to sign an application for a two-acre plot. They told another, desperately in need of adequate housing, to make her mark in application for a free Alberta housing traitor. In fact she was-being asked to sign an application for a two-acre plot. They told a third that she was required to sign a census form. In fact she was being told to sign an application for a two-acre plot. They told some that they would receive necessary housing assistance if they leased lots or accepted them as gifts, but wouldn't receive necessary housing assistance if they didn't lease lots or accept them as gifts. They told still others that their homes would be bulldozed if they didn't lease the lots or accept them as gifts from the Provincial Government.

Recently Band members, who have neither leased lots nor accepted them as gifts from the Provincial Government, and whom the Provincial Government has publically described as "merely squatters on provincial crown land", received property tax notices from the Provincial Government. The notices stated that a 15% penalty "will be imposed" if the taxes are not paid before November 15, 1983. The notices also state that unpaid taxes "may be recovered as provided in the Municipal Taxation Act and the Tax Recovery Act". Provisions for "recovery" under the Municipal Taxation Act and the Tax Recovery Act means seizure and sale of assets, however limited, to cover supposed tax indebtedness.

Most Band members are financially unable to pay the property taxes being levied by the Provincial Government. Moreover payment of such taxes would jeopardize Indian land rights by in effect accepting provincial jurisdiction over traditional Indian lands.

Included in the provincial property tax assessment notice is a separate charge to support the building of a new school in the traditional Indian community of Little Buffalo Lake. The Indians have explicitly opposed construction of a new school at this time due to their fear that a new school would only serve to support the provincial claim that their community is not an Indian community at all, but rather a provincial "hamlet", and as such not available to be included in the reserve lands. The Indians are thus being asked to finance construction of a new school which they oppose because it jeopardizes their traditional land rights, in order to bolster the Provincial Government's legal position regarding provincial jurisdiction over the Band's traditional lands. Should the Indians refuse or be unable to finance constrcution of this new school, the door is open for the Provincial Government to claim the right to seize and sell their limited assets, effectively wiping out any remaining ability they might have to withstand the provincial and oil company effort to undermine and subvert their traditional and aboriginal rights.

The situation of the Band and Band members is thus desperate, crucial and urgent. They know no other way to live. They have no money, many have never been out of their traditional area. Many speak only Cree. Many neither read nor write. None have completed Grade 12. Those who try to pursue a different lifestyle will both deny their heritage and break their traditional bond with the land, an essential legal requirement of their aboriginal claim. They are literally in a struggle for their very existence as a people with the rich and politically powerful Alberta Provincial Government, and with dozens of multi-national oil companies, each of which possesses more resources than many nation states. They cannot be expected to withstand the concerted effort of the Alberta Provincial Government and dozens of multi-national oil companies without help. They cannot be expected to achieve a just and fair settlement of their legitimate rights and claims without help. They cannot be expected to survive as a people unless they receive immediate financial. political and legal help.

Your government has the constitutional right, power and responsibility to ensure the general welfare and wellbeing of Canadian Indians. Your government has the constitutional right, power and responsibility to ensure that traditional and aboriginal rights are upheld and respected. Your government has the constitutional right, power and responsibility to ensure the just and equitable settlement of legitimate Indian rights and claims. The record shows that the fate of the Lubikon Lake people is clearly and unavoidably in your hands and that disastrous consequences can be avoided only by your immediate action.

The Band needs immediate financial. political and legal support merely to survive the Provincial and oil company onslaught. The Band needs your government to agree to immediate negotiations between your government and the Band, negotiations which take into account that the Band's current difficulties are in no small measure due to the failure of federal officials to properly discharge their delegated responsibilities, negotiations which are seriously intended to redress past injustices and to achieve a fair, just and equitable settlement of the traditional and aboriginal rights of Band members. The Band needs financial assistance to support Band participation in the negotiations with your government. In short, the Band needs the full support and assistance of your government, financially, politically and legally, to ensure Provincial Government compliance with the terms and conditions of the settlement negotiated between representatives of your government and the Band.

As this most pressing matter has now been brought to your personal attention, we have every confidence that your government will do whatever is necessary to redress past injustices and to achieve a fair, just and equitable settlement of the traditional and aboriginal rights of the Lubicon Lake Indians. In this effort you have our prayers, our best wishes and our complete support.

Faithfully yours,

Dr. Anwar M. Barkat, Director
Programme to Combat Racism, WCC.

cc:

Mr. B. Ominayak, Chief, Lubicon Lake Band
Very Rev. L. Wilson, Ecumenical Forum of Canada and President of the WCC
The Most Revd E.W. Scott, Primate, The Anglican Church of Canada
Canadian Council of Churches