It may not have been overwhelming support, but it was enough to give the nod to a $64.3 million settlement agreement between the Piikani First Nation (formerly the Peigan Nation) and the federal and provincial governments.
The settlement puts aside claims that the Piikani Nation may have on water rights, under Aboriginal, treaty or common law, and discontinues current legal action in regard to litigation over rights, entitlements and jurisdiction relating to the "beds, shores and water of the Oldman River as it passes through the Piikani Reserve."
The ballots were tallied on Sept. 18 following three days of voting. Of the 1,848 eligible voters, 1,250 ballots were cast, 720 of which were in favor of the agreement.
"I'm very relieved with the outcome of this vote," said Chief Peter Strikes With A Gun. "This is long overdue."
The Piikani Nation has a "lot to gain" with the approval of this settlement agreement, said band councillor Edwin Small Legs, who helped negotiate the deal.
But not every one is pleased with the outcome.
Conrad Big Bull led a vocal group against supporting the agreement, saying that it wasn't rich enough or strong enough for the people.
"Sixty-four million is not much money in the real world for 3,000 people," said Big Bull.
"It should have been a $500 million settlement, or even $1 billion," he said. "The Canadian and Alberta governments could afford to pay for all the resources."
The agreement settles disputes with the Alberta government regarding the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation Headworks and in so doing assures that the Piikani Nation benefits from the Oldman River dam reservoir and the headworks. It provides funds to the nation to pursue new economic development, business and employment opportunities, and funds for housing, community infrastructure, education and youth programs.
All funds will be deposited to a Piikani Trust governed by the Piikani Trust Agreement as approved by the members. The trust agreement cannot be amended during the first eight years and any amendments after that can only be carried out with the approval of the majority of the Piikani electors. The trust account cannot be terminated.
The agreement recognizes that the nation is "legally entitled to reasonable quantities of water to meet its current and future needs," reads documentation provided by the nation.
As well, it allows the nation to acquire 10,300 acres of new reserve land.
Four conditions had been negotiated outside of the success of the vote for the settlement agreement. A $2.44 million environmental impact assessment study will be carried out on the river valley. Piikani Nation members will participate in the Oldman Dam Hydro Project. A committee will be established by the province and Piikani Nation that will explore new infrastructure and economic development initiatives. And finally, repairs will be done by the province to the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation Canal and, where practical, labor and resources of the Piikani Nation will be used to complete the repairs.
"This deal has given us spin-offs for the future, for our people, for the unborn," said Small Legs. "It will be a good kick start for us to get into some ventures we can benefit from."
But perhaps most importantly, said Strikes With A Gun, the settlement will give the Piikani Nation a strong starting point when the federal government revamps governance of First Nations.
"We've always been part of the land and part of the resources. I'm relieved to know that we at least have a better tomorrow," said Strikes With A Gun.