Finding hope in a hockey rink: Project aims to improve life for the Lubicon Cree

Here's one for the books -- unions, employers and human-rights activists working together on a project to improve the lives of a forgotten First Nations community in Alberta.

These seemingly disparate groups have raised $97,000 to build an outdoor hockey rink for the Lubicon Cree, a community of about 500 in Little Buffalo, a six-hour drive north of Edmonton.

Despite living in a wealthy province in a wealthy country, amid the operations of oil and gas companies making mega profits, they live in Third World conditions. Many homes lack running water or indoor toilets. There is no grocery store, no gas station, no health facility and no recreation facilities.

Why, you might ask, is everyone -- the provincial government, the federal government and private corporations -- able to make money from oil and gas operations on Lubicon territory, while the band members themselves are left with next to nothing?

This journey has taken more than 100 years, beginning with the Treaty 8 negotiators failing to include the Lubicon in 1899. It was followed by decades of foot-dragging and underhanded negotiating tactics by federal authorities. No progress has been made since the Lubicon were recognized as a distinct society with land rights in 1939. Attempts to negotiate a reserve have been met with delays and disappointments.

Independent, unbiased voices, including Amnesty International, have backed the Lubicon's calls for justice, to no avail. In 1986, after an 18-month inquiry, Judge Davie Fulton filed a report that supported the Lubicon. The Alberta government refused to discuss his recommendations and he was fired by the federal government.

In 1990, the United Nations found Canada in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights over its treatment of the Lubicon people. In 2005, the UN urged the Canadian government to resume negotiations with the Lubicon and find a solution.

Meanwhile, resource extraction in the area continued and by 2009 there were more than 2,000 oil and gas installations in Lubicon territory, leaving band members to deal with the downside of industrial operations -- declining moose population, scarce food supplies, less income from trapping and greater dependence on welfare -- while enjoying none of the benefits of increased income from operations on their land.

But today's story is not about gloom and doom. Despite the seemingly overwhelming issues faced by the Lubicon, they have found allies willing to come together to make a difference to the lives of band members. Operation Hockey was launched in July 2010 by the Human Rights and International Solidarity Committee of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) and Amnesty International, to raise funds to build an outdoor hockey rink. This project was chosen because young band members said they needed somewhere to get together to spend time in a positive atmosphere.

Since then, unions (including the United Nurses of Alberta, the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3911, United Food and Commercial Workers 401 and 1118, Canadian Union of Postal Workers Edmonton and Calgary, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, the Canadian Office & Professional Employees Union 458 and the AFL) have kicked in $58,000 toward the cost of the rink. Employers (including Harvest Operations Corp., Outsource Seismic, CCS Corporation, Roy Northern Land, Arsenal Energy Inc., Devon Standard, Triple K Trucking, Hi-Tech Reclamation, Norab Contracting and C-Six Water Hauling) added $39,000.

The band donated the land for the rink, played a vital role in fundraising, and band members have been involved in doing as much of the work themselves as possible, to make it more affordable.

Yesterday, the varying players involved in Operation Hockey celebrated by lacing up their skates and taking to the ice in a game against young band members on the newly minted rink. What better evidence can there be that seemingly disparate groups can work together in a just cause?

The project is not over yet. Another $70,000 needs to be raised to complete the rink. But the people involved in Operation Hockey are confident that this work will be completed.

Having proved what can be done when determined people work together, it is way past time for the federal and provincial governments to get their skates on and do the right thing -- negotiate a fair and just deal for these Albertans. It is time to end more than a century of injustice.

Christina Doktor is a member of the United Nurses of Alberta and is chair of the Alberta Federation of Labour Human Rights and International Solidarity Committee.

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