McKay Métis Historic Land Deal
On March 28, 2018 the McKay Métis made history by becoming the first Métis community in Canada to own all of their own land. Not since the days of Louis Riel have Métis been in control of their own territory. The historic land purchase from the Province of Alberta saw the McKay Métis acquire the remaining 150 hectares of land that they have been living on since long before the hamlet was incorporated in 1820.
“This represents a huge step forward for our Métis community,” said Ron Quintal, President of the Fort McKay Métis. “Not just for our members today, but those generations yet to come. Moreover, this land deal, how it came about, and the actual mechanisms used to accomplish it, can all be replicated by other Métis communities across the country.”
The McKay Métis community consists of roughly 100 members living a 40 minute drive north of Fort McMurray, wedged between the Athabasca and McKay rivers, that the locals call “Little Red River”. The community is shared between the McKay Métis, and the larger Fort McKay First Nation. “We are one community,” said Quintal. “We are all related in one way or another, we live, work and play side-by-side, and we practice our traditional lifestyle together.”
While there is officially both a Métis and a First Nation side of town, for most residents of Fort McKay, the only difference is whether you live “up south, or down north”, referring to the direction of flow of the Athabasca River. “Finally having control of our own land will allow us to build services that can benefit the entire community, not just the Métis population,” said Quintal.
The McKay Métis intend to use the land to build housing for their members, along with shops and amenities that nearby oil sands workers can also utilize, such as a gas station, Tim Hortons and a car wash. In an interview with CBC, McKay Métis Group of Companies CEO Dwayne Roth said, “To invest that kind of development infrastructure into something you don’t own just didn’t make economic sense.” This land purchase opens up many new opportunities to the community that were previously unavailable.
A NEW DEAL
The deal itself was with the department of Alberta Municipal Affairs who held the land. The $1.6-million deal for the remaining 150 hectare parcel, adds to the 50 hectares that were transferred in 2014. Shaye Anderson, the Minister of Municipal Affairs who attended the announcement on March 28 stated that:
“The Government of Alberta is a proud partner of the Métis and are pleased to be a part of this historic land transfer to the McKay Métis, the first of its kind in Canada. Our government is committed to the principles laid out in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and is glad that we can work together as we continue on the path towards reconciliation. I am thrilled that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs could play a key role in making this a first in Canada. We look forward to continuing this strong partnership with the McKay Métis”.
Before this land deal, McKay Métis were already a Métis community like none other. They house all their own people, and employ many of them in one of their 10 multi-million dollar community-owned companies. This prosperity has helped allow them to become leaders within the Métis National Council and the Métis Nation of Alberta, in many cases helping lead the way in the exertion of important Indigenous rights.
For instance, currently there is no “off-settlement” Métis consultation policy in Alberta. This means that when a new oil sands project is being planned, there is no legal obligation on the part of the project proponent to consult with Métis communities. Over the years this has resulted in a devastating loss of traditional territory, as well as negative impacts on the local community from odour, light pollution, noise, increased traffic and the deterioration of the land, water, and wildlife that the Métis have always depended on for their way of life.
Rightfully, the NDP government is reviewing this consultation policy to ensure that industry proponents and governments are directed to consult with Métis communities on projects taking place in their traditional territory. “We have been working very closely with the Minister of Indigenous Relations, Richard Feehan, to create a policy that balances the province’s need to grow economically, with the Indigenous rights that are clearly defined under section 35 of Canada’s constitution,” said Quintal. This strong leadership stands to benefit Métis communities across Alberta.
As well, the McKay Métis have taken a lead role in the Rural Coalition, a group that sprung up in the wake of the 2016 wildfire when the rural and Indigenous communities of the RMWB felt that they were not being listened to by municipal government. Through working with the other partner communities of the Rural Coalition, McKay Métis have helped deliver major changes for the rural and Indigenous hamlets. In the past 18 months, the Rural Coalition has been able to secure funding for the Conklin Multiplex as well as piped sewer and water for the five southern hamlets of the RMWB. “Working very closely with Mayor and Council, in particularly Ward 4 Councillor Jane Stroud, we have been able to secure life changing investments for these communities, as well as policy changes related to implementing the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations,” said Quintal, “these developments are game changers.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
Despite all this progress and prosperity, problems remain within the community of Fort McKay. “We have a housing shortage,” said Lauretta Waquan, a councillor for McKay Métis who is responsible for housing. “We have a lot of homes that house two or more families, lots of couch surfing, and even some members currently experiencing homelessness. This land deal is the answer to all those problems”. The plan to date is to begin construction on 4 new units before the end of the year, with the goal of eliminating crowded and cramped conditions within 24 months. “None of this would have been possible, just a few months ago.”
Another area of benefit will be increased opportunity for youth. Felix Faichney the 21-year old McKay Métis councillor with the Youth portfolio describes the situation before this deal;
“Previously there were no entry level jobs for teens and young adults within the community. There are no stores or small business for kids to get their first job and build their experience and confidence. The only jobs available were at site, and not everyone is suited or qualified for those roles. This resulted in many youth having to leave the community to try and get ahead, or worse, not work at all. Now we will be able to open smaller, mom and pop type shops that will give kids their first opportunity.”
WHY THIS MATTERS FOR THE RMWB
This land deal is important for all residents of the RMWB for a number of reasons. First, it helps correct an historic injustice where certain Indigenous communities were disenfranchised due to discrimination. Residents from all walks of life within the RMWB should welcome the end to this kind of treatment.
A 2015 Supreme Court of Canada decision found that the Métis are considered so-called “Indians” under the Federal Indian Act. This means that the government of Canada now has jurisdictional responsibility for this portfolio, allowing for long-denied education, health and capacity dollars to start flowing to Métis communities across the country. However, despite this monumental change, how those rights are articulated have yet to be defined. “Self-governance means that it is up to each community to determine for themselves what these rights mean and how to exercise them,” said Janice Richards, a council member for the McKay Métis. “I think residents of the RMWB would be proud to learn that a local Métis community is leading the charge for Métis across the country.”
Furthermore, this deal allows the McKay Métis to develop their land economically, which will contribute to the overall well being of the region as a whole. “It is entirely possible that a non-Indigenous person reading this article today, could one day end up working at a job located on this land,” said Richards. “At a time when the Alberta economy is still recovering from the drop in oil prices and the wildfire, this should be welcome news.”
Additionally, this deal paves the way for other Métis communities to do the same, allowing their citizens to receive the same kinds of benefits. Other Métis communities within the RMWB, such as the McMurray Métis, are already pursuing a similar plan, one that should be supported by all residents of the region for the same reasons.
And finally, this deal stands to benefit everyone in the RMWB, as few groups can be counted on more than the Métis to protect and steward the natural environment. Given that such a large percentage of the land throughout the RMWB has been taken up by oil sands leases, protection of the remaining fragile ecosystems should be a priority for everyone.
By making history, the McKay Métis have not just helped improve the region for the Métis citizens, but everyone in the RMWB. You do not have to be a Métis individual to benefit from this deal, and that is definitely something everyone can celebrate.
This is just the opening scene of a dream that Louis Riel began imagining over 150 years ago. Maybe the next Louis Riel will be born right here in the RMWB, on sovereign Métis land.
Left to right: Edison Lee Johnson (Exec Director Fort McKay Métis), Hon. Richard Feehan (Alberta Minister of Indigenous Relations), Lauretta Waquan (Councillor Fort McKay Métis), Ron Quintal President (Fort McKay Métis), Hon. Shaye Anderson (Alberta Minister of Municipal Affairs), Felix Faichney (Councillor Fort McKay Métis). Photo taken March 28, 2018.
McKay Métis President, Ron Quintal, announces the land purchase at a press conference in Edmonton, March 28, 2018.