Northern Alberta First Nation wins support for plan to expand reserve lands

An Alberta First Nation has received support for its fight for additional land after its reserve has been left uninhabitable due to rapid changes in the environment.

Wood Buffalo municipal council endorses bid to designate reserve land inside Fort Chipewyan

An aerial view of Fort Chipewyan, Alta. in 2011. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation wants the government to create reserve land within the hamlet. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

An Alberta First Nation cleared an important hurdle in its long fight for additional reserve land Tuesday night when it received support for its proposal to have municipal property declared as reserve land.  

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo voted to write a letter to the federal government, asking for the approval of the creation of a reserve within the hamlet of Fort Chipewyan.

This would accommodate the treaty rights of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation members, whose own reserve was rendered uninhabitable in the mid-1970s.

The community of Fort Chipewyan is located approximately 200 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. (Google Maps)

"It boils back to reconciliation with the era of residential school [abuse]," ACFN Chief Allan Adam said Tuesday. "And if we want to get past that era, we have to move forward.

"This is one portion of moving forward."

Bennett Dam wreaked havoc on reserve

In the mid-1970s, the ACFN was relocated from its 34,767 hectares of reserve land north of Fort McMurray in the Athabasca Delta, Adam said in an October letter to Don Scott, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

The 1968 opening of B.C.'s Bennett Dam lowered water levels and caused wildlife populations to collapse. At about the same time, services such as housing, education and health care were being relocated to nearby Fort Chipewyan.

As a result, "members had little choice but to abandon their homes on-reserve … and relocate to Fort Chipewyan," the letter stated.

Once in Fort Chipewyan, members were deemed to be living off-reserve and were no longer protected by tax and other exemptions under the Indian Act.

The Indian Act and treaties signed between the Crown and First Nations exempt band members from paying tax on personal property and income that's situated on their reserve.

Fort Chipewyan sits on Lake Athabasca and the edge of Wood Buffalo National Park. It is home to many people from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

For the past 10 years, ACFN has been lobbying for a mixed municipal and reserve designation.

In the past, Adam said the municipality was unwilling to support the idea, but on Tuesday, council voted in favour.

Council will write a letter of support, asking the federal government to approve the creation of a reserve within the hamlet.

Councillors also asked the administration to work with ACFN to iron out the kinks of a new service and governance agreement within the hamlet. The agreements would allow First Nation members to receive municipal garbage, fire protection, water and sewage services for a fee.

Adam said his First Nation hopes the reserve will incorporate about 100 lots that are currently in the municipality. The lots include a mix of homes and offices.

'Right what has been wronged'

Critically acclaimed Fort McMurray film director Kelton Stepanowich created the short film Gods Acre, which parallels the plight of many of the people forced to move off their traditional land.

Stepanowich told CBC News Tuesday that the film's message sympathizes with the people of the ACFN who have struggled to come to terms with issues beyond their control.

"A major theme, a major topic in Gods Acre is change, and I feel that First Nations people are changing a lot," Stepanowich said. "And this problem that the ACFN is going through is change that was forced upon them.

"To me it seems pretty clear how to right what has been wronged."

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook and Twitter, email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca


David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.