Canada - The Lubicon Lake Cree


The Lubicon Lake Cree are boycotting the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. They have also instituted a boycott of the major accompanying cultural event at the Glenbow Museum. The exhibit, first titled "Forget Not My Land," now titled "The Spirits Sing," is sponsored by Shell Oil Company, one of the oil companies allowed by the government of Alberta to drill on the Lubicons' land. The Lubicons' call for a boycott is supported by the Museum of the American Indian, the Harvard Peabody Museum, the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, the National Museum of Denmark, three museums in Sweden, four museums in Switzerland, the Museums für Volkerkunde in Berlin and Munich, the ethnological museum in Oslo, the Bergamo museum in Italy and the Horniman Museum in England. Many other museums have simply not replied to the Glenbow's loan request. The following article describes the all too familiar conditions that led to the present situation of the Lubicon Lake Band Cree.

The Lubicon Lake band of Bush Cree (saka wiyiniwak) Indians of the boreal forest of northern Alberta is facing destruction both as an organized society whose traditional culture has a well-defined environmental adaptation. The isolation that preserved the band ended when the Alberta provincial government illegally completed an all-weather road in 1978 and granted exploration and drilling leases to major oil companies; the provincial government's actions violated old Imperial and new Canadian law.

Lubicons have lived from time immemorial in a region of approximately 7,500 sq mi, north of Lesser Slave Lake, southwest of Lake Athabasca, between the Wabasca and Peace rivers. Subsistence was based primarily upon moose (Alces alces) and other big and small game and fish. Hunting and trapping of fur-bearing animals began after the onset of the fur trade and until the last few years provided the cash for necessary or desirable goods, such as clothing, rifles, ammunition and traps.

Social institutions that distinguish the Lubicon as a society and are of anthropological interest include bilateral cross-cousin marriage; a kinship system with Iroquois-type cousin terminology; classification of kin into consanguines and potential affines or in-laws and including temporary matrilocal (uxorilocal) post-marital residence with bride service; levirate and sororate formation of society into hunting groups; local and regional bands; a "marriage universe" including the adjacent Loon Lake and Cadotte Lake regional bands and a social identity reflecting the territory they exploited. Oral traditions include the "whiskey jack" or Wissakedzak (wi-sahke-ca-hk) stories, genealogies and historical traditions. Attitudes and rituals include the ancient circumpolar respect for the bear and also a respect relationship for moose. A conservation attitude may be reflected in the gloss/iskoh/, to save a little, meaning to save some game even if it were possible to kill all - this included, for example, not killing moose calves, pregnant cows or more bulls than needed, and not killing all inhabitants of a beaver house in order for them to continue to reproduce. Hunting moose provided the basis for a system in which the reward for success was recognition and status. Also fundamental was the expectation of sharing and the generosity of the successful hunter. In addition, there was the recognition of demonstrated wisdom and ability to those who were recognized as Elders. Government was by consensus, especially of the heads of families guided by the Elders.

The social institutions and ecological adjustment made a consistent whole, an integrated society and culture. The advent of the fur trade had been gradual. The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) governed Rupert's Land and the Northwest Territory until they were ceded to the new Dominion of Canada in 1870. The HBC had a limited colonial policy to provide trade goods and reduce time expended on subsistence activities, thus allowing more time for trapping fur. The HBC was not interested in introducing European ways or proselytizing for the sake of innovation.

Indeed, the Lubicons' area was very isolated and did not have a permanent HBC or "free trader" store, a Christian mission or a school until recent years. The closest Euro-Canadian town was Peace River, 60 ml to the west, reached by dog team and toboggan in winter and by horse and wagon in summer. Hence, cultural change proceeded very gradually and did not adversely affect the hunting strategies and related institutions or the belief system.

The isolation was so complete that Canadian treaty commissioners engaged in making treaty within the Athabasca District in 1899-1900 did not penetrate its hinterland. Remaining on the historic and important fur trade routes - the Athabasca River, Lake Athabasca and the Peace River - they did not venture from water routes. The Lubicon Lake Cree and several other isolated bands did not enter into a treaty relationship with the Crown and did not extinguish their aboriginal rights to the land, air, water or minerals of their traditional territory. It appears that they retain sovereignty over their lands.

After the commissioners signed Treaty 8 with the readily accessible bands, the Lubicons attempted through trader and missionary intermediaries to make a treaty. At the time they were concerned about possible intruders into their territory. Their treaty efforts failed, although some individuals were recognized as Indians and granted legal status as Indians. In 1940 these recognized Indians became the legal Lubicon Lake Band, In the early 1940s, the Department of Indian Affairs unilaterally removed many Lubicon individuals and families from the official Indian rolls, in rulings against which there was no feasible appeal. According to the department, any Indians enrolled after 1 January 1912-were deemed not entitled to Indian status. A reserve was designated for the Lubicon immediately before World War II, The reserve was, however, not surveyed nor confirmed by a Government Order-in-Council.

In the 1970s and 1980s the Alberta Government granted leases for exploration and exploitation to major oil companies, in regions that included the traditional lands of the Lubicon Lake Cree. In 1978, the all-weather road was completed from the town of Peace River into the heretofore inaccessible hinterland. The construction of access roads accelerated, criss-crossing the Lubicons' lands with lines demarcating specific territories. No environmental or social impact study was made. The Lubicon were ignored.

The lines and roads were often bulldozed on the registered traplines of Lubicon men, destroying traps and the potential of a regular harvest of fur from forest animals. These traplines had been registered with provincial government officials, but were nevertheless destroyed. To add insult to injury, the new roads were marked "Private Road." No access was permitted to the men for trapping or for subsistence hunting.

The subsistence base and the fur resources were suddenly and catastrophically destroyed. The resources of the modern social welfare state could replace the physical necessities of life. But not all the social welfare services of an oil-rich province or of the industrial Canadian state could replace human dignity or the status of being a self-supporting family head and a man or woman of standing. The government's services could not replace an autonomous social and cultural system in which the individual found meaning and satisfaction.

Without the environmental resources of the past, the men and women cannot teach children the knowledge and skills of their culture; in the isolation of the hinterland Elders do not have the knowledge, skills and resources to help the young generation adapt to modern industrial society. The generation gap has become a cultural gap: young people are neither adapted to the past nor to the future.

Economic penetration of the Lubicons' land has been accompanied by increased contact with outsiders; this contact has led to severe health problems. In the last two weeks of August 1987 alone, 45 Lubicon have been diagnosed as exposed to tuberculosis, and 32 have been hospitalized in Edmonton.

Since 1980, the Lubicon have initiated legal action against the Canadian government. In 1982, a suit was filed in an attempt to obtain an interlocutory injunction in the Court of Queen's Bench. It was rejected on grounds that "no irreparable harm" had been done because no traditional way of life had been shown, in spite of the uncontested evidence. The case is proceeding at glacial speed; the longer the delay, the greater the damage. It is possible that resolution of the legal aspects will require a decision of the Supreme Court, since the case involves aboriginal rights as recognized under the new 1982 constitution.

The Chief and Elders are aware that a completely traditional way of life is beyond recovery. They do hope, however, that a land resource base and oil royalties may provide a new society but with some continuity with the past.

Negotiations have been stalemated. The Canadian government professes willingness to include the Lubicon within Treaty 8 but wants to allocate reserve lands on the basis of the previous official enrollment - about 200 persons - excluding all others. The Lubicon insist that the present membership of about 450 persons must be included as legal Indians and used to determine the land base, as had been done with all other Indian bands when entering a treaty. If the population of the year 1900 was used as a guide, before the devastation of the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic, the land base would be greater.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 provided that land could not be taken from Indians without a treaty made by the Crown and without just compensation. The British North America Act of 1867 established Canada as a largely self-governing dominion; subsequent Indian Acts followed this rule. Historically, when Indian bands made a treaty, they determined their own membership. But after the 1952 revisions to the Indian Act, the Canadian government changed this position; the Department of Indian Affairs heretofore granted Indian status. The government's position now is that only those Lubicon officially enrolled before passage of Bill C-31 in 1982 can be included in land settlement negotiations. Lubicon are unwilling to accept that those persons not officially recognized are debarred and not entitled to Indian status, land entitlement and other prerogatives deriving from aboriginal rights. The Alberta government, having been granted the federal Crown lands and enormous revenues, is not interested.

To place pressure upon the governments, Lubicon have appealed to the UN Committee on Human Rights. They are supported by international and Canadian national and provincial aboriginal groups, church groups and groups and individuals in North America and Europe concerned with civil and human rights. They are attempting to boycott the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, and have had considerable success protesting the accompanying ethnological exhibit planned for the Glenbow Museum and sponsored principally by Shell Oil, one of the companies involved in the Lubicon territory.

What is anomalous is that a desperate band of 450 Cree Indians struggling for survival is pitted against a government believed to be decent and humane.

After this paper was submitted, the author received a telephone message from the Lubicon Lake Band indicating that "The UN Committee on Human Rights. Geneva, has agreed that the Lubicon Lake Band complaint is admissible under Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and has instructed Canada under Provisional Rule 86 to do no further damage to the traditional Lubicon society."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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