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Breaking new ground: Métis in Alberta buy their land from province for 1st time in Canada

The Métis community of Fort McKay, Alta., has become the first in Canada to buy all of the land it's on from a provincial government. The $1.6 million transaction is being announced today.

Deal between Alberta and Fort McKay Métis Community will enable development previously not possible

The Fort McKay Métis Community has concluded a historic deal with the Alberta government to buy all of its land from the province. (Peter Evans/CBC)

The Métis community of Fort McKay, Alta., has become the first in Canada to buy all of the land it's on from a provincial government.

The $1.6 million transaction was finalized Monday between Fort McKay Métis and the province of Alberta, leaving the former in complete control of 492 acres (about 200 hectares) of territory. A formal announcement with the province was scheduled for 11 a.m. MT today.

The community is small, both in terms of its size and its population. Not all of its 97 members live in the area, a 40-minute drive north from Alberta's oilsands developments in Fort McMurray. But it's now a pioneer in Métis history.

"The message … is that as we go over the future for Métis developments and Métis land claims all over the Prairies, we can say that Métis land ownership is not incompatible with the ownership of other interest groups," Dwayne Roth, a lawyer who played a key role in negotiations, said.

Felix Faichney, who grew up in the Fort McKay community, says the idea that he and the rest of its members would one day own the land they call home seemed a distant dream.

"It wasn't ours. We didn't have the freedom to do with our land what we wanted," Faichney, 20, the board director of the Fort McKay Métis Community, said as he surveyed some of the backwoods that will eventually be torn down to make way for housing.

Felix Faichney says he is glad young people in the Fort McKay Métis Community will have opportunities he didn't, now that it owns the land it's on. (Peter Evans/CBC)

For years, Roth said, the Fort McKay Métis hesitated to develop the land, as they were leasing it from the province.

"To invest that kind of development infrastructure into something you don't own just didn't make economic sense."

Now, the construction equipment and fences that sit in a barren field should soon be transformed into a community pavilion.

A community pavilion will be developed in this clearing, now that the Fort McKay Métis have bought their land from Alberta. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Across the street, an advertisement billboard should soon be replaced by the gas station, car wash and fast-food restaurant it currently promotes.

The community also has plans for a healing lodge, a spray park and an administrative centre.

For the community's president, Ron Quintal, this has all been long in the making. He said he was first elected to office in 2005 with a mandate to acquire the land in question. The community had previously purchased 120 acres (about 50 hectares) in 2014, and on Wednesday, acquired the remaining 372 acres (about 150 hectares) for $1.6 million.

"The work that I've done for this community is to allow my sons and all the sons and daughters of the community in Fort McKay to almost have an inheritance," said Quintal.

Key court decision

In 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the federal government has the same level of responsibility toward Métis people in Canada as it does toward First Nations.

Quintal said the landmark decision is playing a key role in shifting how Métis are able to speak to, and negotiate with, different elected representatives across the country.

Fort McKay Métis president Ron Quintal says Métis nations in Canada have been lagging behind First Nations in asserting their rights for years. (Peter Evans/CBC )

"The First Nations have been able to get where they are through a recognition of treaty rights. They negotiated treaty rights years ago, and that's basically the platform they've been able to assert themselves on," Quintal said.

"The Métis haven't had that opportunity. Up until recently, recognition of Métis rights was non-existent."

Challenges ahead

But Quintal is also aware their example won't be the easiest one for Métis to emulate elsewhere.

With its proximity to the oilsands, his community has been uniquely placed to build up the wealth to buy its land over the years. Many of its members work for companies in the industry.

With its proximity to Fort McMurray, Alta., oilsands operations, the Fort McKay Métis Community was uniquely placed to build up wealth and buy its land from Alberta. (Raffy Boudjikanian/CBC)

That's not the case for other Métis communities in Canada. Still, both Quintal and Roth hope Fort McKay could serve as an inspiration.

"Communities that don't have the prosperity that we have, they can follow that model and start working with industry or whatever model it is that they have in their own backyards, to start to leverage this economic prosperity," Roth said.  

As for Felix Faichney, he is excited about what the future has in store for Fort McKay, and he wants to be there to help build it. He'll be leaving his own full-time job in the oilsands industry at the end of March to dedicate himself full-time to the Métis. 

"The youth coming up, like my son — [this purchase] creates all those opportunities for him, opportunities that I didn't have," he said, referring to two-year-old Felix Jr.

Felix Faichney is overwhelmed by the potential for new opportunities in his home of Fort MacKay. 0:35

Corrections

  • A previous version of the story said the Métis community of Fort McKay, Alta., is in control of 800 acres (about 325 hectares) of territory. In fact, it controls 492 acres (about 200 hectares).
    Mar 28, 2018 12:31 PM MT

About the Author

Raffy Boudjikanian is a national reporter with CBC in Edmonton. He has also worked in Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.