Blood Tribe's land claim a 'very emotional issue for many people,' Cardston mayor says

An ongoing Federal Court trial to decide the Blood Tribe’s sweeping land claim comes nearly 40 years after members of the southern Alberta band staged a blockade to draw attention to the dispute.

'There are, no doubt, issues where we can do better on both sides reducing the prejudice'

Members of the Blood Tribe have set up what they call a peace camp near the reserve's boundary with the town of Cardston, to document alleged cases of racism and pursue them with authorities. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

An ongoing Federal Court trial to decide the Blood Tribe's sweeping land claim comes nearly 40 years after members of the southern Alberta band staged a blockade to draw attention to the dispute.

Tensions surrounding the blockade can even be felt today.

The Blood Tribe — the largest First Nation in Canada — claims its reserve should encompass a much wider swath of the Alberta prairie than what the federal government set aside for the band more than a century ago.

The First Nation says its border should extend farther south into the town of Cardston and beyond.

The federal government rejects this claim, arguing the band is not legally entitled to any more land.

A Federal Court is now hearing the case in Calgary.

'Very emotional issue'

Blood Tribe members have gone to great lengths to press their case with federal officials — including the 1980 blockade that lasted for days.

The blockade along the Blood Tribe's border with Cardston had exposed some strain in the relationship between members of the First Nation and town residents.

It hasn't completely faded.

Several members of the Blood Tribe are now at the blockade site documenting alleged cases of racism. 

According to Cardston Mayor Maggie Kronen, the land claim remains "a very emotional issue."

Cardston Mayor Maggie Kronen says the town has attempted to be good neighbours with the Blood reserve. (CBC)

"Some feel we are on their territory and we should never have been there," she said.

"So, with that mindset it doesn't help relationships there. Others feel that we must learn to live as neighbours, let the court settle the issue and move on with our lives. And try to apply some of the reconciliation guidelines."

The blockade

In 1980, several members of the Blood Tribe travelled to Ottawa with a bundle of land claim documents and soil from the reserve, seeking to resume negotiations to settle the long-standing dispute.

The band members gave former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's government 75 days to respond to their concerns, a deadline that lapsed on July 19, 1980.

Two days later, several members staged a blockade along Highway 5, the stretch of blacktop that divides the reserve and Cardston. In the hopes a protest would secure a meeting with the government, demonstrators built a teepee blocking an access road to grain elevators and bulk oil and gas stations adjacent to the reserve, according to a public inquiry that reviewed the incident a decade later.

From the archives: The Cardston blockade of 1980

3 years ago
Members of the Blood Tribe staged a blockade along the band's Cardston border in an effort to secure a meeting with Ottawa. 2:03

As the demonstration wore on, leading to rounds of arrests, Blood Tribe members also stopped buying food, gas and clothing in Cardston.

Tensions escalated in town, according to the public inquiry's final report, released in 1991.

"The local political leadership, with several exceptions, took an extreme view of the 'non-action' of the police, as they perceived the situation," commissioner Carl Rolf wrote.

"The mayor wanted to 'deputize' the citizens and take the law into his own hands. He also suggested counter blockades as an answer."

'I was beaten'

Roughly a week into the blockade, when protesters ignored a police order to move, officers arrested dozens of demonstrators — and the scene later turned violent.

"I was beaten in the back, the buttocks, my legs," Esther Tailfeathers, a Blood Tribe member, told the public inquiry. "An arm was put around my neck and choked me."

Tailfeathers, who testified RCMP officers knocked her unconscious, was among several Blood Tribe members who described injuries they suffered in scuffles with officers.

"The confrontations and violence fostered feelings of distrust, frustration and dismay among all groups," Rolf wrote.

Following the blockade, the federal government ultimately agreed to form a task force to study the Blood Tribe's land claim. A year later, the group recommended the government conduct further research into the claim, but Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government declined to follow through.

It wouldn't be the last time the band was rebuffed from Ottawa.

A recent view of the town of Cardston, with the Blood reserve in the background. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

The First Nation is now forging ahead with the Federal Court case it first launched in 1980, the same year as the blockade.

Peace camp

The site of that nearly four-decade-old demonstration continues to hold meaning for band members.

Several of them have set up what they call a peace camp at the site of the blockade to document alleged cases of racism in southern Alberta, including Cardston.

The camp, which isn't blocking access roads, was started by three students from Red Crow Community College as part of their social work degree.

They set up the camp earlier this month and, so far, they don't know when they're going to leave.

Members of the Blood Tribe have staged a peace camp at the site of a 1980 blockade along the reserve's border with Cardston. (CBC)

"We want to provide a safe place for community members to come and report incidents," said Nadine Eagle Child, a Blood Tribe member and a co-founder of the group called the Apiistamiiks White Buffalo Trail Blazers. "We want to educate the broader community that racism, hate, discrimination will not be tolerated any longer."

Cardston's mayor says the town has attempted to be good neighbours with the reserve over the years, helping the band secure a community grant to build a playground and offering addictions treatment when the fentanyl crisis emerged on the reserve.

'We can do better,' mayor says

Kronen said the town's economic health relies heavily on band members to buy its lumber, food and insurance, along with other goods and services. She said one-in-seven Cardston residents is Indigenous.

"There are, no doubt, issues where we can do better on both sides reducing the prejudice," she said. "That's where we have to learn to not colour all of ourselves with the paintbrush. Are there elements that will have difficulty accepting others? You don't have to be of different race for that to happen."

Shauna Fox, who is also organizing the peace camp, said she welcomes the town's overtures, including serving Christmas dinners to those in need. But she wants to see more.

"We need to have meaningful engagement, and meaningful consultation on building healthy relationships with the Blood Tribe and the Town of Cardston."