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Enoch Cree Nation - an Unauthorized Bombing Range in WWII

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

This week, we have been highlighting the significant contributions and sacrifices of Indigenous peoples to the war efforts of the early 20th century. Today, we will look at the instance where the federal government misused leased lands by turning Enoch Cree Nation into a practice bombing range, which severely harmed the people who lived there.

Enoch Cree Nation is a vibrant First Nation located just past the city of Edmonton. You may know the area for the popular River Cree Resort and Casino, you may have participated in a powwow (where all are welcome), or perhaps you may remember the Indian Nations Golf Course. In 2014, the golf course and adjacent Enoch Cree Nation Cultural Grounds were closed for “safety reasons” after live munitions were found on the course. [1]

Photo credit: CBC News, https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/yekau-lake-bombing-range-enoch-cree-1.5808167

During the Second World War, the Canadian government leased lands from Enoch Cree Nation, and used the land as a practice bombing range for Allied forces. [2] Yekau Lake was the location for the majority of the bombing practice, and was destroyed by the unauthorized use as a bombing range. It is estimated that up to 100,000 munitions were dropped on the land from 1941 - 1945, during the Second World War. [3]

Using the land as a bombing range had significant negative impacts. The lake could no longer support fish, and the water became unusable. This was a huge issue in the 1940s, because Yekau lake was the only source of water for the Cree people. [4] Restrictions in the Indian Act increased the negative impact of the unauthorized use of this land on the Nation. Due to the Indian Act, if members of Enoch Cree Nation wanted to take water from somewhere off-reserve, they would have to get permission from the federal government. [5]

The testing of explosives also impacted the Cree people and the wildlife who lived there. During the testing, Nation members heard the explosions and felt their homes shake. Afterward, they were fearful of being in the area. The land that used to be a hunting ground saw a decrease in wild animals. [6]

Throughout this time, Enoch Cree Nation donated the money received from the federal government for lease of the lands back to the war efforts. Despite the devastating effects of the practice bombing, the Nation was committed to advancing the common good of banding together and defending the country. [7]

In 2007, Enoch Cree Nation launched a claim against the federal government for breach of fiduciary responsibility. That the Crown owes a fiduciary duty to First Nations bands was confirmed in the 1984 case of Guerin vs The Queen. In that case, the government leased land from Musqueam First Nations for use as a golf course under competitive financial terms, which were ultimately not upheld. The Supreme Court of Canada determined that the government has an obligation to act in the best interest of the First Nations people when using their lands, and that the government failed to do so when they did not consult Musqueam about the revised terms of the lease. [8]

When Enoch Cree Nation leased the lands to the federal government, it was understood that the land would be used for practice rounds, such as smoke and flash bombs. [9] Although the Government claims that only these practice rounds were tested at that location, the band commissioned its own survey that suggested otherwise. [10] In 2007, an independent surveyor found evidence of explosives on the land. [11] The Nation also claimed that the government did not hold a referendum for Enoch band members, which would have been necessary prior to using the land as a practice bombing range. [12]

In November 2020, a $91 million dollar settlement was reached between the Government of Canada and Enoch Cree Nation. The settlement will primarily be used for land reclamation, with some funds used to cover lost income from the golf course, and community compensation for the trauma that was endured. [13]

In a press conference following the settlement agreement, Chief William (Billy) Morin of Enoch First Nation proclaimed the settlement as a “significant act of Reconcili-Action”, allowing the Nation to restore the land for future generations. [14] And while the federal government still maintains that only practice rounds were used, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations recognized the settlement as advancing Canada’s work to right historical wrongs. [15]

World War II saw the Allied forces prevail, due in part to the sacrifice made by Enoch Cree Nation. The settlement shows a step in the right direction towards reconciliation by the federal government. As we approach Remembrance Day this year, we hope you will think of not only the Indigenous soldiers who contributed to the fight, but also those who supported the war efforts from home.

[1] CBC, "Indian Lakes Golf Course closes for safety reasons", CBC (15 April 2014), online: <www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/indian-lakes-golf-course-closes-for-safety-reasons-1.2611339>.

[2] CBC, "$91M settlement over WWII federal bombing range 'way forward' for Enoch Cree Nation, say chief", CBC (23 November 2020), online: <www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/yekau-lake-bombing-range-enoch-cree-1.5808167>.

[3] APTN National News, "Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta reaches $91M settlement with Canada over land", APTN (22 November 2020), online: <www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/enoch-cree-federal-government-settlement-second-world-war/>.

[4] Supra note 2.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Indigenous Foundations, "Guerin Case", UBC First Nations Studies Program (last visited 08 November 2022), online: <indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/guerin_case/>.

[9] Supra note 2.

[10] Supra note 1.

[11] Supra note 2.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, "The Government of Canada and Enoch Cree Nation reach agreement on Yekau Lake Practice Bombing Range", Government of Canada (13 November 2020), online: <www.canada.ca/en/crown-indigenous-relations-northern-affairs/news/2020/11/the-government-of-canada-and-enoch-cree-nation-reach-agreement-on-yekau-lake-practice-bombing-range.html>.

[15] Ibid.

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