$91M settlement over WW II federal bombing range 'way forward' for Enoch Cree Nation, says chief

On Nov. 13, Enoch Cree Nation and the federal government reached an agreement for $91 million to cover trauma endured by people who lived nearby, future cleanup of the land and lost income from a golf course, which closed in 2014 for safety reasons.

Billy Morin says as many as 100,000 munitions dropped on First Nation's land

Chief Billy Morin of Enoch Cree Nation has been one of the lead negotiators on the Yekau Lake Practice Bombing Range file since he became chief in 2015. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Chief Billy Morin stands just off the seventh hole tee box of what used to be the Indian Lakes Golf Course in Enoch Cree Nation, just west of Edmonton. 

He talks about his late father, who worked the golf course, and how golf was his medicine. In generations before, the sweetgrass, sage and muskeg tea that grew adjacent to nearby Yekau Lake were his ancestors' medicines.

But in the 1940s, this land served a much different purpose: it was a practice bombing range for Allied forces during World War II.

Morin estimates up to 100,000 munitions were dropped between 1942 and 1944. The land, he said, was taken by the government despite not holding a referendum for Enoch band members.

On Nov. 13, the nation and the federal government reached an agreement for $91 million to cover trauma endured by people who lived nearby, future cleanup of the land, and lost income from the golf course, which closed in 2014 for safety reasons.

For Morin, it's impossible to put a price on trauma endured. But as one of the lead negotiators on the claim for the past five years, he's happy to close this chapter for his nation.

"It is historic to settle a land claim that's just about 80 years old," Morin said.

"No amount of money can ever put this land back to what it was … but hopefully the nation decides some good things to happen with this land going forward."

In a statement, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett said the federal government will be available to Enoch Cree Nation should they need any special help in continued cleanup of the land.

Land felt unsafe

Morin has heard stories from elders who lived near the range in the 1940s as young people. They'd feel their houses shake — old enough to understand there was a war raging on but too young to understand their place in it.

The federal government leased the land from Enoch, but Morin said leadership donated that money right back to the war efforts, something he is proud of. 

"I think it goes back to what we inherently wanted when we signed a treaty," he said.

"It was working together for the common good. And at that time, the more common good was banding together and defending this country."

After the area was decommissioned as a bombing range, the Canadian government had no other use for the land.

But nation members had to deal with the fallout. There were no fish in the lake; they couldn't use the grounds for hunting anymore because it was unsafe. 

An archival photo of Enoch Cree Nation out near Yekau Lake. (Submitted by Enoch Cree Nation)

For the first few years after the Second World War ended, Yekau Lake was the only water source for the Cree who lived there. If they wanted to go elsewhere, they'd have to get permission from the federal government, as per the Indian Act.

"They felt a lot of hurt," Morin said.

"And it was still a wound that at this time [is] still open."

Gary Morin lived near Yekau Lake in the 1950s, and he remembers people being scared to go there.

"Fear took a lot of their freedom away," he said. 

But at some point, hunger forced the hand of people on the reserve. The 71-year-old remembers hunting near Yekau Lake when he was seven years old — when he'd retrieve ducks that the older hunters shot over the lake.

Gary Morin, a 71-year-old elder in the community, was a steward of sorts for the Yekau Lake area for decades. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Occasionally, he said, he'd come across what looked like a "big lead bullet." 

Gary Morin later became a steward of sorts over the land, tending to cattle there. He saw first-hand the effects the bombs had — wild horses would fall into the craters left by the bombs, and the lake seemed like it was losing vegetation possibly due to pollution from the munitions.

A lot of the wildlife he used to see — cougars, lynx, rabbits — haven't returned, he said.

Despite the drastic change to the land, Gary Morin helped build powwow grounds near the lake to help return it to an important part of maskêkosihk, which means land of the medicines in nehiyawewin (Cree). 

He also was part of the leadership that built the Indian Lakes Golf Course.

'Felt like betrayal'

Chief Billy Morin said they began using the lands as they'd been told that only practice rounds — smoke and flash bombs — had been used, munitions that aren't as much of a threat as their more explosive counterparts.

In a statement to CBC News, the Department of National Defence said its has "found no evidence that any other munitions were used at the site."

It said extensive searches in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2014 found only three unexploded practice rounds which were removed. It deems the land safe for use, but wants the public to be aware of what happened on the land before using it.

But an independent surveyor contracted by Enoch found evidence of live, heavy-action explosives in 2011, and deemed the whole area unsafe.

One of the munitions found in 2011 near the Indian Lakes Golf Course. It prompted the closure of the Indian Lakes Golf Course on the reserve in 2014. (Supplied)

It was this mixed messaging that hurt the nation's trust in the then-Conservative government.

"It felt like betrayal," Billy Morin said.

"It kind of felt like the government's always hiding something or there was another agenda or they're just not in it to do the right thing by us and this land to make it whole again, to have a good, prosperous future on it."

In 2015, when the federal Liberals took office, Billy Morin went from councillor to chief. They wiped the slate clean on negotiations and came to an agreement five years later.

'It's safe out here'

Billy Morin is talking about the richness of the land and the medicine it had before the bombing range when he spots a deer near the lake. Some medicines have returned.

He hopes to reopen the golf course his dad loved so much. He wants buffalo to roam the area again one day, and he wants to create a space for nation members to enjoy the outdoors, hunt and pick medicine. 

Gary Morin wants to see the buffalo roam again, too. He said he sees some "strange-looking birds" these days, a sign that the land is returning to its natural state.

An overhead view of Yekau Lake, which was used in the 1940s as a practice bombing range. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

It's still not perfect. The Department of National Defence has said the site was assessed as having a low unexploded-device risk in 2011, but admitted the site can never be declared completely hazard-free.

But Chief Billy Morin said the settlement is a good path forward. 

"At the end of the day, the federal government and the negotiators don't have to live here. We do. And we have to find an acceptable way forward for our nation members," he said.

"I believe it's safe out here for people. I believe we're taking all the right steps to make it safe, otherwise we would have never signed the deal."