A look back at the year that was 2011
The past year was one of taking action and being noticed. This past year marked one of accomplishments for Aboriginal people in Alberta. Whether through protests by membership, court action led by leadership or demonstrations that saw leadership and membership combined, Aboriginal people clearly left the message that they would not be silenced. Issues that remained in the forefront included Treaty rights, environment, and education. Aboriginal bodies forged partnerships with educational institutions and corporations to enhance the quality of life of their membership.
Below are the top 12 stories of 2011 in the order they occurred.
Cigarette seizure starts country-wide battle
On Jan. 5, the RCMP and the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission removed what was dubbed “a record seizure of contraband,” 14 million cigarettes from a Quonset in Hobbema. The cigarettes, from Kahnawake-based Rainbow Tobacco, were not marked for sale in Alberta. Provincial taxes are approximately $3 million. The seizure marked the start of action across the country, in particular the west, dealing with the sale of tobacco product on and from First Nations. While Montana First Nation Chief Carolyn Buffalo said the provincial government had no right to seize the cigarettes, which were located on the reserve and falls under federal jurisdiction, the province held that any cigarettes sold in Alberta had to bear the provincial marking. Montana First Nations, Carolyn Buffalo, and Rainbow Tobacco Company filed a joint $1.5 million lawsuit in March against the AGLC over the seizure of tobacco. In April, the AGLC charged Buffalo, Rainbow Tobacco president Robbie Dickson and Dwayne Ouimet, and local distributor Jason Lucas, under the Tobacco Tax Act with storing tobacco products not marked for legal sale in Alberta and for possessing more than 1,000 cigarettes. Buffalo said the cigarettes were to stimulate economy on the First Nation.
Record crude oil spill
On April 29, a portion of Rainbow Pipeline, operated by Plains Midstream Canada and located about 20 km from Little Buffalo, ruptured and released 28,000 barrels of light, sweet crude oil. The oil was largely contained on the 30-metre-wide pipeline right-of-way, although some escaped into a nearby wetland. A beaver dam contained the spill to a pond. The incident marked the largest crude oil spill in three decades in Alberta. Except for a 10-day period where personnel had to be evacuated because of raging wildfires, Plains had personnel on site working to clean, repair and remediate. Plains claimed that after 30 weeks of mobilization, construction, containment and clean-up operations had resulted in over 245,000 work hours being logged. Almost four months after the spill, the Energy Resources Conservation Board gave Plains the go-ahead to re-energize the line. The news was not welcomed by chiefs in the region who claimed that Plains had assured the First Nations that the pipeline would not resume operation until the clean-up had been completed. Woodland Cree Chief William Whitehead also accused Plains officials of being “tight-lipped” about their intentions and not consulting with the community. Stephen Bart, vice president of operations with Plains, said that wasn’t the case. Whitehead also wasn’t pleased with how the clean-up site looked. However, Alberta Environment said it was satisfied with the progress. In giving Plains the go-ahead to reopen the line, the ERCB said that Plains met the criteria established by the government agency.
Wildfires ravage northern Alberta
In mid-May, wildfires, spread by strong winds and dry conditions, began eating their way through the Treaty 8 area, centred on the town of Slave Lake. The first mandatory evacuation orders were issued on May 15. Close to 8,000 people were displaced, with easily one-third of those being First Nations and Métis. Those evacuated included residents in the First Nations of Loon River, Woodland Cree (Marten Lake and Cadotte Lake), Whitefish Lake, Fort MacKay, Sawridge, Bigstone Cree, Driftpile, Lubicon Lake (Little Buffalo) and Swan River (Assineau River) and Gift Lake Métis Settlement. Evacuees who couldn’t stay with families or friends sought shelter in temporary refuge in Edmonton, Valleyview, Peace River, Athabasca, Grande Prairie, Westlock, Wabasca and High Prairie. Most returned home within two weeks. On May 25, phased-in re-entry began to the town of Slave Lake, with essential personnel starting the return after critical infrastructure was confirmed as safe. Both the provincial and federal governments stepped in with additional funding to help with recovery costs, the province through the First Nations Development Program and the federal government through Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada. A $50-million relief program was established by the federal and provincial governments to meet the immediate needs of evacuees and to rebuild Slave Lake and surrounding communities. Adult evacuees were eligible to receive $1,250, and children under 18 received $500. Additional provincial dollars came in August, with $189 million split between wildlife recovery, disaster recovery and interim housing. Private fundraisers were also held to help meet the needs of those who were uninsured. In November, the government announced the investigation into the Slave Lake fire, which caused approximately $700 million damage, had deemed it to be arson.
Four-month-old baby dies while in foster care
A small crowd of people gathered on the steps of the Legislature in Edmonton on June 6 to bring attention to the death of another Aboriginal child in foster care. The baby, Delonna Sullivan, died April 11 in hospital in Edmonton, six days after she was apprehended from mother Jamie Sullivan’s home. Sharon Gladue spoke on behalf of the little girl’s grandmother, and relayed how the child had been apprehended by RCMP and social workers and how the mother offered them the child’s car seat for safe transportation. At a court date, the foster parents arrived late and the baby was sick and had red marks on her face. “With all their heart, they wish they could be here to tell everyone, especially the child welfare system, that they must change it. It is intolerable, unjustifiable, and demeaning for them to just walk in without cause and take away your child,” Gladue repeated what the grandmother said. “After that (the grandmother) just broke down. She had nothing more to say.” Delonna is the second child to die while in care in the last three months. There have been four foster deaths in the last six months. Of the approximately 9,000 children in care in Alberta, 70 per cent are Aboriginal.
Métis harvesting case experiences setback
The Métis Nation of Alberta is seeking leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal of Alberta a decision to uphold the conviction of Métis harvester Garry Hirsekorn. In his July 21 52-page decision, Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Neil Wittmann did overturn “substantial parts of the trial judgement,” said Jason Madden, legal counsel for the MNA, although he did uphold the conviction. Wittmann held that the MNA were allowed to argue constitutional issues in defence of Hirsekorn’s charge; that Hirsekorn had been hunting for food which was also part of a political action plan outlined by the MNA; and that the MNA had established with sufficient time that Hirsekorn’s actions were not only about hunting in the Cypress Hills area but about Métis harvesting at large. Madden said the MNA will be appealing the ruling because Wittmann “misstates and misapplies the Powley test. We think he does so because he says in order to find that the plains are site specific enough to meet the Powley test, (he) would need to modify it. We don’t think the Powley test needs to be modified. We just think that you need to read the Powley test in a purposive manner and it allows you to find that mobile Aboriginal people may have larger traditional territories … of where they can harvest.” The Blood and Siksika First Nations were granted limited intervener status in the appeal of the Métis harvesting decision and were heard by Wittmann in June. Madden hoped the Hirsekorn case would be in front of the Court of Appeal in early spring 2012, but said fall 2012 was more realistic.
Supreme Court rules Métis can control own membership
In a 50-page decision released July 21, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin stated, “The Métis have a right to their own culture and drawing distinctions on this basis reflects the Constitution and serves the legitimate expectations of the Métis people.” The verdict was rendered in the Cunningham v. Alberta case that went before the Supreme Court in December 2010, in which the Métis Nation Alberta along with the Métis Settlements General Council and Métis National Council were granted intervener status. Cunningham et al chose Indian status because the family felt benefits for Indians outweighed benefits available for Métis. Sect. 75 of the Métis Settlement Act prohibits anyone with Indian status from obtaining Métis settlement membership, while Sect. 90 calls for the removal of membership from the settlement for individuals who have voluntarily registered as Indians under the Indian Act. The Alberta Court of Appeal struck down sections 75 and 90 of the MSA saying they were unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court said those sections of the MSA did not violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “This is a very strong tool that the Métis have now in their kits, to really stress, ‘We’re not Indian, we’re not Inuit, but it doesn’t mean we’re less than.
You’ve got to do something with us. It may not be identical with what you do for Indians and it may not be identical with what you do for Inuit, but you can’t be willfully blind to the fact we’re there and we’re an Aboriginal people,’” said Jason Madden, legal counsel for the MNA. There are about 8,000 members on Métis settlements and about 80,000 Métis in Alberta. According to the 2006 census, 2,500 people self-identified as Métis and also have registered Indian status.
Federal plan for caribou recovery disappoints
The push from federal judge Justice Paul Crampton to force the federal government to take action to protect the woodland caribou in northeastern Alberta did not have the results First Nations in the region were hoping for. When Environment Canada released its draft Caribou Recovery Strategy in August criticism from First Nations leaders was strong. “It doesn’t put anything in place.
Basically it just caters to industry and goes to show the federal government and the provincial government both walk hand-in-hand with industry when it comes to development in those areas,” said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. The Athabasca Chipewyan were joined by Beaver Lake Cree Nation and Enoch Cree Nation, along with environmental groups Pembina Institute and Alberta Wilderness Association, in forcing the government’s hand through a judicial review hearing on June 22 in Edmonton. Action to spur on the federal government was initiated summer 2010 with a letter to then Environment Minister Jim Prentice. Legal action by the First Nations and environmental groups got underway September 2010. Melissa Gorrie, legal counsel for EcoJustice, which represents the environmental groups, said the federal recovery strategy made the northeast Alberta herds its last priority. The federal government’s recovery strategy is four years overdue. In 2002 the woodland caribou was assessed as a threatened species under the Species at Risk Act.
LARP ignores First Nations concerns
Input from First Nations in two drafts of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan has seen little movement in the document that will go before Cabinet. The provincial government released LARP in late August. Although two million hectares of land representing 22 per cent of the area have been set aside as variously-ranked conservation areas, an amount three times the size of Banff National Park, it still represents two townships less land conserved than was proposed in the previous draft.
Conservation-designated areas will see existing oil and gas tenures honoured and sub-surface drilling will be allowed. “The provincial government is going all out and there are no breaks in their agenda in what they see fit for the future for industry,” said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. He said his First Nation will challenge LARP legally on a number of points with emphasis placed on the loss of treaty rights. “Now it’s time for us to start putting legal action in place. We’re going forward with a case. We’re not holding back,” said Adam. The Lower Athabasca Regional Plan is the first of seven plans that divides the province into areas based on the watersheds.
Protests mark the year
On Sept. 26, over 500 people gathered on the steps of the Alberta Legislature to rally in support of First Nations rights. The plight of First Nations people was outlined by numerous chiefs who said treaty promises were not being honoured as First Nations suffered from lack of education, lack of housing, lack of economic development, and lack of health care services. “If we do not fight for our rights, if we are not vigilant against government assault on our rights … then we are failing in our responsibilities to our communities, our youth, our future generations,” said Tsuu T’ina Chief Sanford Big Plume. The rally, dubbed Day of Awareness, was the result of a resolution passed by the AOTC in June.
The same day on Parliament Hill in Ottawa First Nations also took part in a demonstration, which targeted tar sands development in Alberta. Lionel Lepine, of the Athabasca Chipeywan First Nation, was one of 117 people arrested by RCMP when demonstrators crossed a barricade and sat at the steps of the Parliament building. “This goes to show, this government, when people watch out for their rights and what they believe in, and try to stand up to fight for it, automatically they’re either arrested or they’re muzzled somehow,” said Lepine.
Melina Laboucan-Massimo, climate and energy campaigner with the Greenpeace Edmonton office, and member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation, said First Nations from Canada, who also participated in Washington demonstrations, can take part of the credit for persuading US President Obama to be cautious and delay his decision regarding the Keystone XL pipeline development. Meanwhile First Nations continue to oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline. The $5.5 billion 1,200-kilometre twin oil pipeline would ship 525,000 barrels per day of crude oil from a site near Edmonton to Kitimat on British Columbia’s West Coast and return condensate to Alberta. Public hearings for the pipeline are scheduled to get underway in January 2012 and over 4,000 people and groups have registered to speak.
Smaller demonstrations brought other issues to light. In May, a group of Dene Suline of the Cold Lake First Nation closed off access to English Bay provincial recreation area, delaying work underway by the provincial government. Protestors withstood two orders by the courts to vacate the premises. The provincial government temporarily halted construction and will await a ruling, with a court date set for June 2012 for both sides to present their cases.
In September, three women on the Blood First Nations were arrested for blocking the entry and departure of trucks to the Murphy Oil well site on the Blood First Nation. Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, Lois Frank and Jill Crop Eared Wolf all spent 10 hours in jail. The three women were charged under the Criminal Code with intimidation and violation. They made three court appearances in Cardston and will be back there on Jan. 23, 2012. The women were not only protesting fracking, a practise they consider unsafe, but chief and council’s decision to approve a deal with Murphy Oil without full membership consultation.
Health concerns in oil sands community focus of study
The provincial government has committed to working with the Fort McKay First Nation and Fort McKay Métis community to examine health issues in the region. “We’re committed to enter into a community-led process to identify priority questions and concerns related to health and if some of those concerns touch on either the quality of water or the air that people breathe then yes, by all means… (it’s) going to have to be looked at in that context,” said Dr. Andre Corriveau, chief medical officer of health with Alberta Health and Wellness. The commitment comes as welcomed news to leader of the First Nation and Métis community. “This study is way outstanding, way overdue,” said Raymond Powder, councillor for the Fort McKay First Nation. Ron Quintal, president of Fort McKay Métis community agrees. Said Quintal, “We are at ground zero when it comes to the oil sands. Not only are we affected by the downstream, we’re also affected by air quality as well as just development all around us.” Issues to be examined and their priorities will be set by the Fort McKay Aboriginal communities. A steering group or management committee will be formed to move the study forward. The health study is the first of its kind as it partners the provincial departments of Health and Wellness and International, Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Relations with a First Nation and Métis community. The province has committed funding, its expertise and its networking contacts to the project. Corriveau anticipated the study will take three- to five-years to run its course.
Aboriginal portfolio becomes part of larger provincial department
Under new Premier Alison Redford, Aboriginal Relations was folded into two other high-profile portfolios as a single government department under a rookie minister. The new-look government was not welcomed news for Alberta chiefs. “The chiefs of Alberta are disappointed because now we have a ministry that has three distinct portfolios,” said Cameron Alexis, Grand Chief of Treaty 6. Richard Kappo, Grand Chief for Treaty 8, went a step further saying, “It’s kind of a slap in the face. It was that way at one point and then they separated our people into a ministry of our own and now we’re back to where we used to be.” Heading the ministry of International, Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Relations is first-term MLA Cal Dallas (Red Deer-South). Dallas took a different view of the change. “What we have done is strengthen this in the manner that it is a government to government relationship, thus the intergovernmental part of this, as well in the sense that federal government in their policy and their funding have very significant impacts in the work that we do in supporting Aboriginal communities, First Nations and Métis throughout the province and so I see this as an opportunity for me to work closer with some of the ministries both federally and provincially that can make a difference in terms of Aboriginal issues.”
Education issues prevalent
Education remained a strong priority throughout the year, as seen in action undertaken by First Nations, provincial and federal governments and institutions.
In November, the National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education stopped in Alberta. The panel, a joint effort between the Assembly of First Nations and federal government, travelled the country to gather information and recommendations on changes that needed to be made. “Our children need to feel that they are important in our schools. That they are the reason why we are there and it’s crucial for them, even in terms of what they’re taught. They need to be able to see themselves in the books they’re taught,” said Piikani First Nation Chief Gayle Strikes With A Gun. “We need to develop our curriculum but we need the funding to be able to do that.”
On a regional level, Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk made it known that he wanted to meet with Aboriginal leaders, school trustees and community members in the Northland School Division prior to deciding which of the 48 recommendations made by a government-appointed team would be implemented. The recommendations were as a result of consultation that took place in the 23 communities that have schools operated by NSD. The team was appointed in January 2010 by former education minister David Hancock. In March 2011, Hancock appointed an engagement team, co-chaired by MLA Pearl Calahasen, who had referred to Hancock’s dismantling of the NSD corporate board as “paternalistic” and “heavy-handed” to engage the community in discussion regarding the recommendations.
In March, a group of Enoch First Nation members, 40 at its height, held a demonstration outside the River Cree Resort, demanding that chief and council step down in their role as Kitaskiwan Education Authority and appoint a separate school board. Allegations of fraud, child abuse, and neglect of duty had been leveled against school administrators and chief and council were not taking action. Fraud allegations are being investigated by the Edmonton Commercial Crimes section of the RCMP, and Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada withheld some funding based on a discrepancy between the number of students reported by the school and the number of students identified by ANAC.
Throughout the course of the year, partnerships continued to be formed between Aboriginal organizations and post-secondary institutions and corporations to advance Aboriginal education through unique programming and scholarship dollars. One such relationship was announced in June by the Métis Nation of Alberta in which the Rupertsland Centre for Méis Research was created. The centre is the result of a memorandum of understanding signed in 2007 by the MNA and the University of Alberta. The Rupertsland Centre for Métis Research is an arm of the Rupertsland Institute, which is an affiliate of the MNA and delivers labour market programming to the Aboriginal population in Alberta. The work to be undertaken by the centre will be a collaboration between university personnel and MNA members at large. The centre could also serve as a base to house Métis research from around the country.