"I felt it was an important place to start," Prentice said Thursday after meeting with the chief and council of the Lubicon Lake Cree in Little Buffalo. "I think there's some unfinished business there."
Prentice, who was treated to a bowl of moose nose stew by his "gracious" hosts, said the band and the province will open negotiations on a land settlement, workforce training and education.
"The provincial government has not had that degree of dialogue with Lubicon First Nation in many, many, many years," Prentice said. "I think both the chief and I were pleased with the progress that we made today."
The Lubicon band was missed by federal treaty-makers in the early 1900s and the band claims it has never given up rights to any of its northern territory. The Lubicon gained an international profile in 1988, when the New York Times called it "the tribe Canada forgot."
The dispute has simmered unresolved ever since.
Over the years, band members blockaded logging roads and well-site access into what they called their territory.
International sympathizers helped the tiny Cree band win concessions from the Japanese multinational pulp-and-paper company Daishowa-Marubeni with a boycott the company said cost it about $20 million. The boycott was lifted in 1998 after Daishowa promised not to log on the disputed land.
A settlement was nearly reached in 1988 called the Grimshaw Accord, but broke down after a later disagreement with Ottawa over band membership. The ongoing uncertainty helped create political tensions in the community, which culminated in the February 2013 election of Billy Joe Laboucan as chief, with whom Prentice met Thursday.
Laboucan's rival, Bernard Ominayak, still leads a group of Lubicon Cree and refers to himself as the traditional chief.
Laboucan said treaty negotiations with Ottawa resumed over the last 18 months and are proceeding along the lines Ominayak initially laid out. The parties are discussing about 250 square kilometres of land, economic development funding, resource ownership and compensation for resources already extracted.
"I have to give credit to the former chief," said Laboucan.
Prentice said the land covered in the Grimshaw Accord, which was spearheaded by former Alberta premier Don Getty, has been set aside and remains in trust for the Lubicon.
"The land aspect of it should be reasonably straightforward," he said.
Laboucan said a full treaty settlement will take about two years to reach.
Prentice said he hopes progress on training and education can begin much sooner.
"Our discussion today was about how we work together to focus on the job skills and employment opportunities for people in this community and the educational challenges they're facing in the community."
Little Buffalo remains one of the poorest communities in Alberta. Laboucan said its school is falling apart and it wasn't until recently that the first 26 provincially funded homes with running water were put up.
Fully three-quarters of the community's adult population simply isn't in the workforce, said Prentice, who's now the first premier to actually meet with the Lubicon since Getty and may be the first ever to visit Little Buffalo.
Laboucan called the visit "wonderful" and said it was an important step in a long-running fight — "a dream that's almost 80 years old."
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