A Métis community in northeast Alberta that recently purchased its land from the province says the move was intended to ensure that members of the community will have a place to call home for generations to come.
In late March, the Fort McKay Métis reached a $1.6 million deal with the Alberta government to purchase 133 hectares of land which they had previously leased from the province.
Fort McKay Métis president Ron Quintal says the purchase of land for a Métis community by the community is the first of its kind in Canada.
“We want to be able to make sure that the lands we have acquired are going to be able to benefit our members for generations,” says Quintal. “I want this to be able to benefit my great-great-grandchildren.”
In 2014, the community purchased just over 48 hectares of land from the province for a nominal price of $1. The most recent land transaction covers the remainder the of the community’s territory and was sold at market value, says Quintal.
Even though Fort McKay Métis community members voted unanimously to go ahead with the transaction, Quintal says people from outside the community questioned why purchasing the land was necessary.
“We’ve been questioned by a lot of people in our [Métis] nation, and even First Nations, [asking] why would you buy your territory back when it’s yours?” says Quintal.
“Well true enough, it’s our territory; we can prove that all day long. But ultimately, from a timing perspective … the main reason we decided to buy it now is because the price could automatically inflate.”
Owning the land means the community will have more control of what is developed in their territory, how it is governed, and who can live there.
Fort McKay Métis plan to develop essential services and businesses for the community, including a gas station, a Tim Horton’s, a business centre, and a healing lodge for addictions treatment and spiritual healing. Quintal says the community is also in talks with the neighbouring Fort McKay First Nation to build a new school, which would benefit both communities.
“We see the opportunity to govern ourselves; why not take advantage of that opportunity?” says Quintal.
He adds many by-laws are already in the works, including an animal control bylaw and the Fort McKay Métis Drug Act, which Quintal says will crack down on drugs entering the community.
At 21 years old, Felix Faichney is the youngest board member of Fort McKay Métis, and he is proud that his community has purchased their land from the province.
“I grew up here all my life … it was my playground, I used to run out in the bush of Fort McKay,” he says.
For Faichney, the land purchase guarantees his family can establish roots in the territory for generations to come.
“My connection to the land is my family … this is where our heart is, our land, our pride,” he says. “It doesn’t feel rightfully your land when it’s under a lease.”
Faichney says he is most excited about the opportunities for youth that will come out of the land purchase.
“Owning the land gives us the opportunity to give our youth some of the opportunities we didn’t have with the all the developments we have planned,” he says. “It’s going to create after-school jobs, and youth programs that I didn’t have growing up.”
Setting a precedent
Being that the Fort McKay Métis land purchase is the first of its kind, Quintal says he wants to help other Métis communities who want to take steps toward self-governance.
“We’re hoping it sets a precedent,” he says. “That’s our goal, to do a bit of the heavy lifting, so other communities can follow that path as well.”
In Alberta, the Métis Settlements General Council owns 1.25 million hectares of land, which is divided among eight communities.
Since purchasing the land last month, Quintal has already been in talks with other communities in the municipality of Wood Buffalo, Alta. including Conklin and Anzac. In addition to leading the way for other Métis communities, Quintal says the land purchase is continuing the work of the 2016 Daniels decision, which recognizes Métis people as Indigenous, giving them similar rights as First Nations and Inuit people.
But where First Nation reserve land is still owned by the Crown, Quintal says his community wants to chart their own future.
“Where my mind is at is, we will look at the potential of a modern day treaty,” says Quintal. “There’s a stigma that for Indigenous people, everything is done via handouts, and that’s just not the case.”
Stephanie Cram is a Métis journalist originally from Edmonton. She currently works with the CBC Indigenous Unit, based in Winnipeg.