Fast track to a treaty deal
Fitzgerald band signs final agreement

Terry Halifax
Northern News Services

Fort Fitzgerald, Ab ( May 15/00) - More than a century following the signing of Treaty 8 in Fort Fitzgerald, Ab, the Smith's Landing First Nation (SLFN) has signed a final agreement.

The deal with Alberta's newest and northernmost First Nation includes 7,600 hectares (19,000 acres) of lands adjacent to Fort Smith, along the Slave River and 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) in three parcels selected within Wood Buffalo National Park. As well, the deal includes just over $30 million in cash.

The SLFN first went to the negotiations table on March 6, 1999, when their first offer was tabled. Chief Jerry Paulette said the successful negotiations resulted from all parties knowing what they wanted in the agreement.

"It's just being realistic, being practical and trying to work with everybody up and down the food chain in government," Paulette said. "You also have to know exactly what your community needs.

"We made the assessment on how reasonable it looked, in terms of treaties. We know they can't fulfil every treaty promise with where they are at politically or legally now," he said. "We had to say, 'Let's negotiate for what we can get right now.'"

At the signing ceremony, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Development Minister, Robert Nault, said Canada plans a continued relationship with SLFN to build a strong community.

"This is an historic day for the people of the Smith's Landing First Nation," Nault said.

"This agreement will give the First Nation opportunities to grow, contribute to the economic development of Northern Alberta and become more self-sufficient."

The signatory for Alberta, Pearl Calahasen, associate minister of Aboriginal Affairs, said the mandate to negotiate with First Nations came directly from Premier Ralph Klein.

"Our premier has made land claims a priority," Calahasen said. "We have some absolutely wonderful people working in our land claims division."

The SLFN signing represents Alberta's 11th claim signed since 1986, she said.

"In my view, if you can get the land claim settled, people can start doing the things they see as priorities in their own communities," she said. "It gives the people of that settlement the opportunity to start living."

As part of the settlement, each band member gets a $3,000 signing bonus. As for the big settlement, Chief Paulette says the band has well-thought out plans for the $30 million.

"It's in our bank account already," Paulette said last Monday. "Our investment groups are now looking at how they are going to develop investment portfolios with that money."

The chief said the band will invest the money and use the interest as a legacy to build and service the new community. Paulette said the band has established a banking agreement with band members that will allow the band to access revenue from the account, but the capital will only be used if approved by a majority.

"We've made it fairly strict that the capital will not be used unless totally necessary and even at that it would require a referendum," he said.

Paulette said the band plans to develop a residential area adjacent to Fort Smith just above Pelican Rapids and just North of an area called Halfway.

He feels the revenue account should have grown enough to begin construction next year.

"We're going to look at building five to 10 homes next year on the reserve," he said.

They are planning on construction of administration and commercial buildings on lands adjacent to Fort Smith.

With the community of Fitzgerald now belonging to the band, residents have been given the option of staying on or taking a buy-out from the band.

"It's something we've negotiated with (property owners) and with the province, that if they want to stay, that's up to them, but if they want to move on, we've negotiated a fair deal with them," Paulette said.

"I think everybody's looked after. It's just a matter of when, if they do decide to move. If not, they can live where they are in the same situation."

Jerry's brother, Francois, worked as chief negotiator on this deal and the Paulette name goes back a long way in Fitzgerald history.

"My father was a chief and his father was one of the head men at the turn of the century -- he was at those negotiations when the treaties were made," he recalled. "The family has been involved for some time."

"I've been told by some of our elders that my father and his father would be pretty proud of what we achieved."