LITTLE BUFFALO, Alta. — Their story of poverty and neglect went from northern Alberta to the world and on Tuesday decades of determination paid off when the Lubicon Lake Cree signed a long-awaited treaty with Canada.
Band member Denise Ominayak could hardly believe it.
"I'm excited, I'm happy, but I'm still asking myself, 'Is this really happening?'"
Ominayak was one of dozens of band members who crowded into the tiny school gym in Little Buffalo as federal, provincial and band officials signed a deal expected to change everything in the community of about 640.
"This is a huge milestone for us," said Lubicon Lake First Nation Chief Billy-Joe Laboucan.
"Whatever we're doing here today impacts all of the children going to school here and all the children yet to be born."
The Lubicons were missed during Treaty 8 negotiations in the late 1800s and had been fighting for a land claim of their own since the 1930s. Their struggle and the abject conditions they were living in eventually gained international attention.
Half the band's homes still have no running water. Many are mouldy. Others are overcrowded.
Ominayak said she left Little Buffalo in 1989 when her then-one-year-old son developed fevers and rashes that she attributes to bad housing.
"There's a lot of people here that still live in homes where they have to go outside to go to the bathroom," she said.
That may change. Signing on to Treaty 8 comes with 246 square kilometres of land and $113 million in federal and provincial funds.
The list of upgrades the money will pay for is long. The band anticipates more than 140 new homes, a new school, new firehall with a truck, a health centre, a community hall with indoor rink, 12 kilometres of road upgrades and a fibre-optic link.
"Lubicon Lake has waited far too long for their land claim," said Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who remembers discussing the band's plight around the dinner table as a girl with her father, former Alberta NDP leader Grant Notley.
"I thought about how kids from Lubicon Lake my own age must have felt knowing … such a basic and obvious justice had been denied them."
The Lubicon issue resurfaced in the 1970s, when oil and gas companies began carving through local traplines. By then, the Lubicon were so poor that diseases such as tuberculosis were problems.
The Lubicon gained a global podium when they held a protest at the 1988 Calgary Olympics and blockaded roads into what they called their land. The United Nations and Amnesty International criticized Canada for its treatment of the band.
A provisional deal was signed in 1988 with then-premier Don Getty, but it was never implemented. It formed the basis for today's deal.
"Your fight became almost a talisman of what the fight for Indigenous rights was and meant, not only to Canada, but to the world," said Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations.
Not everyone supports the deal. Bernard Ominayak, the chief who led the Lubicon through some of their stormiest protests, did not attend Tuesday's ceremony.
Laboucan thanked the former chief, but said it's time to move forward.
"The past, that's over," he said.
Denise Ominayak, attracted by how things are looking up, moved back home about five years ago.
"I've seen the community drastically change," she said. "It's a huge thing for the whole community.
"I'm just thankful and proud."
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Bob Weber, The Canadian Press