Paul Martin: Crossing the Lubicon
A simmering 66-year-old injustice against an Indian Nation known as the Lubicon Lake Nation is being perpetuated in Canada, with the active connivance of Paul Martin. In fact, it is nothing less than a mini-genocide, but, done over time, genocide seems somehow less...like genocide. Nevertheless, here's the definition of the term: "A systematic attempt to annihilate a racial group or nation. The word was first used in 1944." Read on, and judge for yourselves.
Throughout the unfortunate history of the Lubicon, the outlines of classic colonial administration unmistakably emerge. Native people in Canada do not even have the right to determine who is, or is not, "Indian": that is a (white) government responsibility, under the Indian Act. The construct "Indian" is imposed by lawmakers and courts; and "culture" in Supreme Court of Canada decisions such as R. v van der Peet appears to be frozen and reified in pre-contact timelessness, with "central" and "non-central" elements to be decided by the Canadian judiciary, an anthropologically-illiterate position as some lawyers, at least, have grasped. As Calgary law professor Nigel Bankes put it, for example, "aboriginal peoples of Canada have rights so long as they remain in a fossilized or primitive state, but their rights are progressively diminished to the extent that they avail themselves to the benefits and burdens of the twentieth century."
In the process of constructing treaties between the Canadian federal government and the many First Nations inhabiting the land over which the Canadian state claims overall jurisdiction, a number of Native people were and continue to be left out. The Lubicon Lake Nation was one such group. Their history offers us, in capsule form, a recapitulation of the history of colonialism and its effects on indigenous peoples: in three words, occupation, dispossession and decline.
Under the treaty process, aboriginal peoples have been placed historically in the position of having to negotiate to keep a portion of their own lands. But at even a greater disadvantage were those Native groups who were left out of the treaty process altogether. The Lubicon Cree should have been included in Treaty 8, between the federal government and the Cree, Beaver and Chippewyan peoples of northern Alberta and adjacent parts of British Columbia, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories, a treaty negotiated in 1899 in order to open the North for gold prospecting. Like a number of other isolated groups in Northern Alberta, however, the Lubicon were never contacted by Canadian government officials, who for various reasons did not enter the interior north of Lesser Slave Lake where the Lubicon lived.
By 1932, Native people from that territory began asking to have the terms of Treaty Eight applied to them. In 1933, the people of Lubicon Lake sent a petition to Ottawa formally asking for a reserve. In 1939 a federal government official, Napoleon L'Heureux, made the trip to Lubicon Lake, and was greeted by more than a hundred band members. Their leader, Alexis Laboucan, pressed his community's claim for recognition, and with it the provisions and schooling that Treaty Eight guaranteed.
A federal inspector, Pant Schmidt, who had accompanied L'Heureux, was impressed:
I saw a number of small gardens and potato patches all fenced in with rails. I noticed also that they had very good horses. I was very much interested in this band, and found them clean, well dressed, healthy, bright and intelligent; in other words, people who want to live and do well.
It was at this point that the fortunes of the Lubicon Lake band changed dramatically for the worse. There were odd delays in establishing the borders of the reserve, and then an energetic Indian Affairs bureaucrat in Ottawa, Malcolm McCrimmon, came on the scene. While David Laird, the negotiator of Treaty Eight, had defined a Native person simply as "one who lived an Indian way of life," McCrimmon went back to the more restrictive language of the 1876 Indian Act, which defined an "Indian" as a "male person of Indian blood reputed to belong to a particular band…Any child of such person...Any woman who is or was lawfully married to such person."
McCrimmon's agile pen soon deleted 640 people from several bands in the region, unable to prove their Native lineage to his whimsical satisfaction, forcing 124 children out of school with no other schools available to them, driving many off reserves, including an 80-year old man with severe rheumatism and a woman with children whose husband was overseas fighting for Canada in the Second World War, and splitting families, allowing some children Indian status and refusing others. People who were successful proved especially likely to lose their status: McCrimmon apparently couldn't believe that Native people could prosper.
McCrimmon struck off 75 of the Lubicon band's 154 members in 1942, and in 1943 another 26, leaving only 64 people—whereupon he recommended to Ottawa that this number was too small for a reserve.This overtly racist behaviour attracted the ire of many, including Members of Parliament, and two inquiries were held.
The first was a farce: McCrimmon wrote the terms of reference and accompanied the inquiry judge, C.M. McKeen, on his rounds. Nevertheless, the judge filed a favourable report, duly ignored by McCrimmon’s boss, Thomas Crerar, the federal minister of Indian Affairs at the time. This provoked a fresh outcry, and Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent was persuaded to call a formal judicial inquiry in 1944.
It recommended that nearly eight out of nine persons expelled by McCrimmon should be reinstated. At Lubicon Lake, 57 of the 90 names that had been removed were examined: 51 of them were found to have been removed in error.
But it was Thomas Crerar once again who received Macdonald's report, and the minister tasked McCrimmon to implement its findings. Not surprisingly, only 120 people were restored to status, leaving another 600 out in the cold. At Lubicon Lake, only 18 were reinstated: McCrimmon had cut the band in half.
After the war, McCrimmon found himself working for a new minister, who favoured assimilation of Native people "into the general life and economy of the country." A revised Indian Act was passed in 1951, further restricting the definition of "Indian" with racial and gender criteria. McCrimmon became the first Indian Registrar under the new Act. "I was a power unto myself," he later reminisced. His continued activities drew more than one thousand written protests.
But the near-fatal blow to the Lubicon was the discovery of oil in the Edmonton area, the subsequent creation of an oil and gas industry in Alberta, and the province’s desire to begin oil exploration further north. Indian Affairs internal reports began to describe the proposed site of the Lubicon reserve as a barren wasteland, and alternative sites far from oil exploration areas were proposed--but even then without subsurface mineral rights. McCrimmon now claimed that the Lubicon Lake Indians had never been officially established as a band in the first place. Ottawa took no action to obtain reserve land, and Alberta deleted the provisional reserve from its books in late 1953. McCrimmon then proceeded to transfer most of the Lubicon band members to the Whitefish Lake band list. The Lubicon Lake band was now down to 30 members.
More catastrophic events followed. A Lubicon Lake community, Marten River, was bulldozed in 1967 after some dubious manipulations by the Alberta government: by coincidence, two years later, the land next to it became the first producing oil field in Lubicon territory. A lease for a proposed farming co-op on part of the promised reserve land was approved in 1970, but a Métis family slowly took over; Lubicon members were fired and replaced with family members until no Lubicon remained involved.
In 1971, oil drilling took place near Little Buffalo. OPEC’s oil embargo in 1973 intensified drilling: the Lubicon and other groups filed a caveat to protect their interests. The Alberta government opposed this, and was supported in court by the federal government; it eventually passed retroactive legislation in 1977 disallowing such caveats. By 1984 there were more than 400 oil and gas wells operating within a 15-mile radius of Little Buffalo. Permits were issued and reissued without any environmental assessments. Oil workers deliberately wrecked trap lines, and forest fires, some deliberately set, raged uncontrolled.
In 1978, the Lubicon elected Chief Bernard Ominayak, who remains chief today. A man of grim determination, he sat down with Alberta Premier Don Getty in 1988, after a show of force that sealed off Lubicon territory for a short period until the RCMP intervened. The two hammered out a comprehensive deal that came to be known as the "Grimshaw Agreement." All that remained was federal participation, but this foundered primarily upon the matter of compensation: far too little was offered to enable the Lubicon to become self-sufficient (which the Lubicon had planned for in detail) rather than perpetually dependent. Ottawa's take-it-or-leave-it offer was rejected.
In 1979, trapping yielded $5000 per Lubicon family; by the mid-eighties, this had dwindled to virtually nothing. Moose killed for food dropped from 219 in 1979 to 19 in 1983: Indian Affairs in Ottawa claimed that land clearing by oil and gas companies was good for the moose population. From 1980-1984, the number of Lubicon on welfare increased, according to the band, from 10% to 90%. Although this figure is contested by federal government officials, band records indicate that in fact 95% of the band was receiving social assistance in the early 1990s.
By 1982, $8 billion worth of oil and gas revenue had been pumped out of Lubicon territory, without a cent going to the Lubicon. Lubicon request for an injunction against further oil and gas exploration was dismissed with costs in 1983 by a judge who had formerly been an oil company employee. An appeals court upheld the verdict, and the Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear the case. The Alberta ombudsman, Randall Ivany, looked into complaints of despoliation and cultural genocide in 1984, and found no merit in them. (He was later revealed to have believed in conspiracy theories such as the alleged "funding" of the Lubicon by the radical American Indian Movement; after his death, he was revealed to have been a common embezzler.)
By 1985 the Alberta Indian affairs minister, Milt Pahl, was calling the Lubicon "squatters," and claiming that only 9 genuine Lubicon existed. And, as if untrammeled oil and gas exploration hadn't been enough, the Alberta government sold logging rights in Lubicon territory to the giant Japanese paper manufacturer, Daishowa, in 1988.
The Lubicon and their supporters became active on the ground. A world-wide boycott of the Calgary Winter Games in 1988, and of the Calgary Glenbow Museum's exhibition of Native artifacts was mounted, garnering considerable adverse publicity for Canada. Since then, with growing national and international support, Chief Ominayak has been continually fighting for his people. A coalition called Friends of the Lubicon mounted a successful boycott of Daishowa.
Meanwhile, tuberculosis was ravaging the Lubicon population—of 358 people screened at Little Buffalo in 1987, 47 had active TB and many more were infected. 107 people in all received treatment, nearly a third of those tested. In 1985-86, 19 out of 21 pregnancies resulted in stillbirths and miscarriages.
There was, and continues to be, a formidable array of powerful interests inimical to the Lubicon. But matters are far more complex. The state is not a monolith. Even within the Canadian and Alberta governments, sympathetic and supportive voices had been raised: from Liberal MPs during the McCrimmon years to Conservative Indian Affairs minister David Crombie, who appointed E. Davy Fulton in 1985 to inquire into the situation. The latter noted the destruction of the environment, and commented that the Lubicon were being literally "bulldozed...into another lifestyle." But Fulton's sympathetic report was never acted on.
The NDP opposition in Alberta set up a citizens' panel in 1993, the "Lubicon Settlement Commission of Review." Its Final Report contains twelve recommendations But nothing came of it either.
Successive federal governments have intervened shamelessly to break the Lubicon resolve. Using its power to create Indian bands under the Indian Act, the Liberal government under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien invented two other bands, hoping to lure away Lubicon; the members of one band, the "Woodland Cree," had been promised $1000 each if they voted for a federal offer of a pitifully inadequate reserve, but they later found out that this would be deducted from their welfare payments.
This brings us almost to the present day, and Paul Martin's shameful continuation of this miserable tradition. He promised to start negotiations with the Lubicon by the end of March 2004, but this never took place, and federal officials claim that they have been given no mandate to negotiate. It's been bad faith all the way with Mr. Dithers.
Amnesty International has denounced Canada for its treatment of the Lubicon; and the UN Committee on Human Rights, which heard the Lubicon complaint and found against Canada in 1990, repeated its concerns only last month.
Decency demands that we make Martin and his Liberal "team" accountable for this outrage during the current campaign campaign. But we ought to be even-handed about it. We should embarrass the Conservatives, whose own record has been nothing to be proud of on aboriginal affairs, and we should force the NDP to put this issue on the front burner. The survival of the Lubicon--those who are left--depends upon it. Let's stand up for them before it's too late.