LITTLE BUFFALO, Alta. - The Lubicon Lake First Nation is heading for another showdown with the federal and Alberta governments over treaty rights and resource revenue.
The Cree band has filed a lawsuit against the governments in which it seeks a reserve and hundreds of million of dollars in compensation for oil and natural gas extracted from land it claims.
The lawsuit filed by aboriginal rights lawyer James O'Reilly on behalf of the Lubicon asks Alberta's Court of Queen's bench to call a halt to all resource development on the disputed land in northern Alberta.
"It is a fight for survival. It is a fight for recognition of rights in their traditional lands," O'Reilly said Monday in an interview.
"Either they are considered to be totally conquered and are totally intruders in their own lands or they have rights which must be respected."
The Lubicon have also sent letters to seven corporations which operate in the area, warning that their resource projects will be "vigorously opposed" unless they have the consent of the First Nation.
The companies are Shell Canada (TSX:SHC), PineCrest (TSXV:PRY), Atco (TSE:ACO.X), Andora Energy Corp., Clean Harbours, Mancal Energy Inc. and Penn West Petroleum (TSX:PWT).
O'Reilly helped broker the 1975 James Bay agreement between aboriginals, Hydro Quebec and the Quebec and federal governments.
That deal included rights to more than one million square kilometres of land and more than $220 million in compensation payments to Cree and Inuit in northern Quebec over 25 years.
It is not the first time the Lubicon have taken legal action. O'Reilly helped the band file a lawsuit in the 1980s. In 1988, RCMP arrested 27 Lubicon members and supporters after the band set up roadblocks in the disputed area.
The band, which never signed a treaty with the Crown, later withdrew that lawsuit when it agreed to a deal with Alberta that called for the creation of a reserve in and around the community of Little Buffalo.
The Grimshaw Agreement required the consent of the federal government, but talks between Ottawa and the First Nation broke down in the 1990s.
Bryan Laboucan, a Lubicon band councillor, said the First Nation is tired of waiting.
"This is just the beginning," Laboucan said. "If Canada and Alberta continue to be unreasonable and refuse to negotiate, we will exercise every option to force the issue forward for the betterment of Lubicon people."
Officials with the federal and Alberta governments and Penn West declined comment.
Shell Canada said the company has strong relationships with First Nations and aboriginal groups based on transparency and trust.
"We have consulted with the Lubicon Lake First Nation in the past and will continue to do so again in the future," said David Williams, a Shell Canada spokesman in Calgary.
The Lubicon statement of claim calls for the band to be given title to up to 246 square kilometres of land, including natural resources and hunting, fishing and trapping rights.
It also calls for all existing oil and natural gas leases and permits granted by Alberta to companies to be declared null and void.
The band seeks the courts to order the federal and Alberta governments to implement the Grimshaw Agreement and pay the band $700 million in compensation.
The band also wants Ottawa to declare that the federal government breached the honour of the Crown by failing to negotiate with the Lubicon in good faith over the years and to admit that it deliberately promoted dissent within the band.
Statements of claim contain allegations that have not been proven in court.
No statements of defence have been filed.
O'Reilly, 72, said he wants to help resolve this case before he retires.
"To have the feeling that we couldn't do anything to remedy what I consider to be one of the most flagrant injustices in the treatment of aboriginal peoples by Canada would be something I couldn't live with," he said.
"It is very much a matter of conscience for me."
— By John Cotter in Edmonton