Alberta has a reputation as a redneck province, filled with ultra-conservative country bumpkins, where liberal social reform is frowned upon. However, Alberta is also known as a maverick among provinces, going its own way on many issues. Alberta’s historical relationship with Aboriginal peoples is interesting, perhaps because of this contradiction.
The province’s centennial is a good time to reflect upon Alberta’s relationship with its Aboriginal peoples. It is important to remember the contributions made by Aboriginal peoples to our province’s growth and immense wealth. Without the Aboriginal peoples’ willingness to peacefully co-exist and share the land and natural resources with the newcomer population, we might not enjoy the prosperity we enjoy today.
Archeological evidence demonstrates that Aboriginal peoples have been in the territory that came to be known as Alberta for at least 11,000 years. Some First Nations migrated to the area more recently, as did the Métis. These were autonomous societies with their own legal traditions and huge trading networks.
Alberta is vast and diverse, with boreal forest in the north, the Rocky Mountains in the west, plains in the south, and rolling parkland in the east. Aboriginal peoples are as diverse as the territory, comprising three major language groups—Athapaskan, Algonquian, and Siouan. Nations of Blackfoot, Tsuu T’ina, and Stoney live on the plains; Plains Cree, Saulteaux, Iroquois, and Stoney in the parkland; Woodland Cree, Chipewyan (Dene), Beaver, and
One significant issue that affected Aboriginal peoples historically in Alberta was the way Euro-Canadian settlers gained open access to the lands and natural resources. Aboriginal peoples have a special status in Alberta and in Canada, a unique legal relationship first recognized by British policy and then by law. This relationship served as the basis for Aboriginal rights, the official recognition that Aboriginal peoples were here first, have a right to use and occupy their lands, and cannot be deprived of it without their consent.
This recognition led the Dominion Government of Canada to enter into treaties with the First Nations. The treaty process brought Aboriginal leaders and Crown representatives together to negotiate agreements about new settler access to Aboriginal lands and resources. The First Nations and Métis leaders focused on their
With the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement of 1930, the federal government transferred the jurisdiction and ownership of the lands and natural resources to Alberta. Section 12 set out the treaty rights to hunt, fish, and trap, while Section 10 set out a requirement that lands be made decisions in the name of progress and created many policies to benefit mainstream Albertans with little thought of the impact on Aboriginal peoples. Alberta began to encroach upon Aboriginal peoples’ traditional territories, and, with the help of the Catholic Church and federal government, began to restrict the movement of Aboriginals to the reserve lands. The Alberta government held that a land transfer had occurred and Aboriginal peoples must be restricted to their small reserves and stay out of the way of progress.
Government and church attempted to assimilate Aboriginals into mainstream society. Residential schools were set up to “civilize” Aboriginal children, often resorting to psychological and emotional abuse and, on occasion, physical and sexual abuse. Generations of Aboriginal persons are still dealing with pathological effects of residential school experiences.
When Aboriginal peoples had no political voice, government officials thought Aboriginal lands should be surrendered if their occupants were not utilizing them for agricultural or industrial development. Such
Alberta initiated two hydro development projects that showed a lack of respect for the concerns of Aboriginal groups. Development of the Big Horn Dam on the North Saskatchewan River resulted in the flooding of a substantial amount of the Goodstoney traditional lands, including grave sites, cabins, hunting camp sites, and pastures. The development of the Old Man River Dam similarly damaged traditional lands and land use of the Peigan.
Despite the mistreatment of Aboriginal peoples, Alberta as “maverick” has been progressive in some of its dealings with the rights of the province’s Aboriginal population. It is the only province to establish a Métis land base. The Métis Population Betterment Act created 12 Métis settlements. Alberta also established five community land cooperatives with the Grande Cache Métis (Iroquois descendents). Furthermore, Alberta has settled more specific claims than any other province. It recently settled a claim with the Smith’s Landing Aboriginal peoples giving them the reserve they were promised under Treaty 8.
Alberta established a Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development and approved an Aboriginal Policy Framework in 2000, which includes commitments to “make reasonable efforts to consult affected Aboriginal people about proposed regulatory and development activities that impact their treaty and other constitutional rights.” It also committed to work with industry and Aboriginal peoples to identify business, employment, and training opportunities for Aboriginal people resulting from resource development. The province passed legislation that allows for Aboriginal peoples to repatriate sacred and ceremonial objects from Alberta museums.
Political and legal events have precipitated a new relationship between Aboriginal people and mainstream society. In reaction to the federal government’s 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy, which sought to remove any special rights, First Nations in Alberta and across Canada have been asserting their treaty and Aboriginal rights, led by then-president
The Supreme Court of Canada has been interpreting Section 35 since then and is developing Aboriginal law. The court has found that the Crown (both federal and provincial) owes a fiduciary duty to ensure the best interests of Aboriginal peoples are taken into account when it takes state action or passes legislation that could infringe on constitutionally protected rights. Aboriginal peoples have more power to influence the development of the lands and natural resources in Alberta. They must be consulted before any development occurs on their traditional lands.
Aboriginal peoples in Alberta still face many contemporary issues in urban, rural, and remote communities. The resolution of these issues requires a new relationship in which Alberta, as “maverick,” can take the lead. Aboriginals in Alberta wish to benefit from the extraction of natural resources on their traditional lands, as do other Albertans.
Alberta’s land appropriation practices remain a serious issue for its Aboriginal peoples, who continue to challenge the province’s absorption of lands without consulting them (though recently, the government has drafted a policy on consultation). Setting up provincial recreation areas and road wildlife corridors takes away lands upon which First Nations can hunt. Forestry licences or oil and gas permits to industry limit access to Aboriginal peoples to exercise their treaty rights to hunt, fish, and gather traditional medicines, plants, and berries.
Outstanding treaty obligations and breaches of treaty promises still exist. The Lubicon Lake claim for reserve lands has stalled for decades while tremendous oil and gas and forestry development continue around them. Alberta has a legal obligation to make lands available for the settlement of such treaty claims.
The new relationship between Alberta and Aboriginal peoples requires a change in our perspective and approach to view Aboriginal peoples as partners, who will share in the benefits flowing from the lands and natural resources. The Supreme Court of Canada has referred to this new relationship, as has the Royal Commission on Aboriginal peoples. The court and the commission, along with Aboriginal leaders, insist that Aboriginal people be involved in the planning and decision-making related to land and resource management on traditional lands. Alberta’s governing officials and Aboriginal leaders must be willing to talk respectfully to each other and to truly understand the other’s interests. Alberta, as “maverick,” can continue to lead the country in this “new relationship.”
Brian Calliou is a lawyer and member of the Sucker Creek First Nation. He is currently the program director, Aboriginal Leadership and Management, at The Banff Centre.