By Clint Buehler
WABASCA, AB – Members of the Bigstone Cree Nation, the largest First Nation in northern Alberta, have ratified the the largest Treaty Land Entitlement claim in Alberta’s history, a cash settlement of $259 million, at least 140,000 acres of new reserve land, and extensive new infrastructure.
The settlement will also trigger a major reorganization of Bigstone, including the creation of new reserves and new First Nations.
The vote by the Nation’s members will be ongoing over the last two weeks of February. According to the 2005 census, Bigstone had 5,874 members, with 2,247 living on the Nation’s six reserves in northern Alberta. A simple majority by at least 25% of eligible voters is required to approve the proposed settlement. Detailed information packages on the settlement were mailed to all eligible voters.
The expansion of the landbase by no less than 140,000 acres will more than triple the resource-rich area of the reserves. The Bigstone land settlement represents close to one-third of the total amount of land provided for all other Alberta Treaty land settlements combined.
Common factors were considered when the communities selected their respective lands. There was a shared interest in preserving and protecting traditional burial sites and areas where medicinal plants and berries are harvested. Technical advice was also received to distinguish area with potential oil, gas and timber resources. Suitable areas for residential use were identified with the assistance of engineers. In addition, land around some of the lakes have been selected and designated for various purposes.
According to Bigstone Chief Gordon T. Auger, $150 million of the settlement will be set aside “to invest in our future” in already-established trusts “to make sure it continues to grow and to generate revenues every year to boost programs and services to our members.
“In addition to the trusts, some of the compensation will be directed to specific purposes. We need to pay off our negotiation loans and legal bills related to the negotiations, as well as reduce our debt.
“We also believe that a modest amount of money should be provided directly to Bigstone members to help them to address some of their immediate needs. Every beneficiary of the settlement will receive $3,500.”
A New First Nation
For generations, members of the Bigstone Cree have lived in the communities of Peerless Lake and Trout Lake, basically squatters on provincial land 150 kilometers away from the dominant reserves at Wabasca, and denied many of the services and much of the infrastructure enjoyed by members at Wabasca because they had no reserve land.
Through those decades, residents of the two communities have lobbied unsuccessfully for the same benefits as Bigstone members on reserve, for their own reserve land base, and for their own separate governance.
If this settlement agreement is approved, those dreams, which seemed impossible only a few years ago, will become a reality: The two communities will become the Peerless Trout First Nation, with its own 63,000-acre reserve, its own chief and council, a $28 million cash contribution from the Alberta government, a new medical health centre and high school, and a new water treatment plant and elementary school in each of their communities.
In 2006, Trout Lake had a population of 343 on 5.33 square kilometres, and Peerless Lake had a population of 455 on 11.10 square kilometres.
Bigstone members who, with their children, choose to become members of the new First Nation will be accepted without restriction if they are:
- A Bigstone Cree Nation Status Indian who is a resident of Peerless Lake or Trout Lake at the time of ratification;
- A Metis/Non-Status Indian person who is a resident of Peerless Lake or Trout Lake at the time of ratification;
- Any Status Cree Indian who is a member of a Band other than Bigstone who is a resident of Peerless Lake or Trout Lake at the time of ratification, and;
- Any Status Cree Indian not living in Peerless Lake or Trout Lake, at the time of ratification, that meets all three of the following criteria:
- Was born in Peerless Lake or Trout Lake, and Was once a resident or Peerless Lake and/or Trout Lake, and,
- Has continuing close ties to other members in either of the Peerless Lake and Trout Lake communities.
Other Bigstone Communities
Two other Bigstone communities some distance from Wabasca also stand to benefit from approval of the settlement.
The 150 or so Bigstone members at Calling Lake will see their existing reserve 140 kilometres south of Wabasca slightly enlarged, but will also be able to elect two members of their community to the Bigstone Band Council, and gain additional infrastructure, services and housing.
The biggest per capita benefit, however, goes to the less than one hundred Bigstone members at Chipewyan Lake, extremely isolated in the boreal forest 240 km north of Wabasca, who have lived without reserve land and with limited infrastructure and services for generations. With approval of the proposed settlement, they will be granted a reserve on 25,000 acres on some of the most resource-rich land in northern Alberta, as well as two seats on the Bigstone band council.
The Bigstone Cree emphasize that the agreement is not a new treaty, but the government of Canada’s fulfillment of its responsibility as set out in Treaty 8 under the Treaty Land Entitlement clause and the Agricultural Treaty Benefits clause.