By Shari Narine
FORT McMURRAY, Alta.
Metis Fest will be extra special this week for Métis in Fort McMurray: they now own the land on which the celebrations will occur.
On May 25, the McMurray Métis finalized the purchase of 3.7 hectares of Crown land from the province at the municipally assessed value of close to $810,000.
The land, located just off Highway 63 at the south entrance of Fort McMurray, had been leased from the province since 1996. When the fire swept through Fort McMurray in 2016, the McMurray Métis lost its buildings, as did Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, which shared the property. That provided an opportunity for the McMurray Métis to continue talks.
“It was something that we had requested and couldn’t achieve over the course of seven previous governments,” said Gail Gallupe, president of Fort McMurray Local Council 1935 of the Metis Nation of Alberta Association.
“This has always been truly Métis traditional territory,” said Bill Loutitt, CEO of the McMurray Métis. “Many of our members, the earlier members who worked on this … all of them have passed. We’re just happy that the vision they instilled in us was able to be achieved through negotiations and integrity and fact-based. It’s been quite the journey.”
The purchase of the Crown land is the first step in the McMurray Métis’ move to own land in Fort McMurray.
Next is negotiations for a land settlement with the Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which governs Fort McMurray. The McMurray Métis is looking at three areas: Moccasin Flats, Waterways (which was devastated by the 2016 fire) and the current downtown location of the Boston Pizza. These areas indicate land expropriated by Fort McMurray in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
“We’ve made it clear that there can never be reconciliation without land back,” said Loutitt.
He stressed that the McMurray Métis want to approach the municipality with facts and don’t want to end up battling for land in court. He said that Mayor Don Scott, who was at the celebration last Friday, was a strong supporter.
Moccasin Flats and Waterways, said Loutitt, would reconnect the Métis to the Athabasca River. Eighty per cent of the people who worked on the river were Métis.
“What they took from us was our connection to the river,” he said. “The Athabasca River is our bloodline. That’s where all our genealogy comes from. It’s very important for us to get that connection back.”
The McMurray Métis is also wanting to negotiate a land claim with the federal government.
“Our vision is to be settled with a land claim eventually,” he said. “We are in a distinct region here that is unique to all of Alberta.”
Loutitt points out that when Alberta provided Métis with land settlements in 1938 none were forthcoming in the Fort McMurray area. No script was given to those Métis in 1899 as Fort McMurray had not been surveyed.
“We always called this unceded Métis territory,” said Loutitt. “In order to be a nation, you’ve got to have land.”
Metis Fest will be held on May 31 on the newly-owned Métis land, with festivities and events budgeted at around $100,000, money garnered from industry partners and the government.
A cultural centre is slated to be built on the land and will represent Métis from Fort McMurray, Fort Chipewyan, Fort McKay and Anzac. The cultural centre will include an Elder gathering area, community meeting room, outdoor healing centre, youth room, educational spaces and offices.