After more than a decade of negotiations, Enoch Cree Nation is getting a $91-million payout from the Canadian government to compensate for the remnants of a World War II practice-bombing range, according to Chief Billy Morin. He said the timing of the deal is welcomed amid tough economic times due to the pandemic.
The First Nation had been in negotiations with the Canadian government for more than a decade over unexploded ordnance buried on its lands.
“This is a ray of hope for our Nation,” said Morin. “I’m very, very happy. This is a nice act of reconciliation. I’m just sorry it took so long.”
HuffPost Canada has reached out to Crown and Indigenous Relations Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett’s office several times for comment without a response.
The reserve is home to 2,400 members and adjacent to West Edmonton. The former bombing range sits on 1,280 acres that includes Yekau lake.
In the 1940s the band was aware the Department of National Defence (DND) used their land but had no say in the matter at the time due to regulations in the federal Indian Act, said Morin. Members were unable to leave the reserve during the practice bombing without permission from the Indian Agent, a government representative. However, the First Nation was told by the feds that only harmless smoke bombs were being used.
Decades later, Canada tried to get out of its responsibility to clean up the site. In a letter sent to Enoch Nation in 2013, Canada demanded a $150-million cap on financial compensation requests and to “indemnify and hold harmless” the government for the condition of the land.
This prompted the Enoch Nation to investigate DND’s claim that it had cleaned up the former bombing range. Thousands of unexploded live munitions or unexploded ordnance (UXO) were found underneath the grounds and in Yetau lake by a surveying company hired in 2014.
Morin announced the indefinite closure of the Indian Lakes golf course and cultural grounds at the site.
“The government needs to come clean,” Morin said at a press conference at the time. “We’ve been misled on the type of munitions used. We’re asking the government for full disclosure.”
In response, the DND assured Enoch members the land was safe and there was a “low probability of any of the munitions exploding.”
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Now-Chief Morin was a lead negotiator for the settlement. “My first thought about when this originally happened is the Canadian government at the time needed public land. They had to choose between a national park and an Indian reserve.”
Even though their lands were used as target practice, the Enoch community donated lease payments they received at the time to the war efforts. An initiative Morin is proud of today.
“Our Nation members and leaders swore allegiance to Canada and donated back to the war efforts because they love this land and did it to defend it,” said Morin.
The multi-million-dollar settlement covers compensation for the continued clean up of the site; loss of the use of land; trauma that elders experienced and the loss of income from the golf course.
“The clean up will never be fully done, quite frankly,” explained Morin. These days Enoch residents have gotten used to living next to the unexploded bombs in the ground, he added.
The long-term vision for the land is to turn it into a park, and eventually a home for buffalo, said Morin. Community members will be trained as full-time park rangers to monitor and care for the Maskeksihk (Land of the Medicines) which is sacred to Indigenous people there. Morin calls the area a “pharmacy on the land,” which was once rich in rare natural medicines, and he hopes to restore it to help heal the nation.
“This is a unique ecological zone. About 40-50 medicines grow here, in the swampy area and our sandhills. Our biggest ally in this will be Mother Nature, the natural process of cleaning up. This medicine is ceremony for us.”
The DND has dozens of other former areas used by the military to clean-up across the country.