03/20/2015 01:14 EDT | Updated 05/20/2015 05:59 EDT

Ottawa announces negotiator for talks on long-awaited Lubicon treaty

CALGARY - Attempts to resolve a decades-long dispute over a treaty for the Lubicon Cree in Alberta have taken a step forward with the appointment of a chief negotiator.

Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt announced Friday that Ralph Peterson will try to help resolve the 80-year-old claim.

"I know all our ancestors from the Lubicon are looking down on us here and rejoicing with us," said Billy Joe Laboucan, chief of the Lubicon Lake Band.

Hope of reaching a settlement has increased since Alberta Premier Jim Prentice said it was a priority for him and visited the Lubicon community of Little Buffalo in northern Alberta last October.

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 territory. Its members have block logging roads and well-site access into what they call their territory.

Attempts to get a treaty have won the Lubicon an international profile. A settlement was nearly reached in 1988 but broke down after a disagreement with Ottawa over band membership.

The ongoing uncertainty helped create political tensions in the community, which culminated in the February 2013 election of Laboucan as chief. His rival, Bernard Ominayak, still leads a group of Lubicon Cree and refers to himself as the traditional chief.

Little Buffalo remains one of Alberta's poorest communities.

A framework agreement between Ottawa and the Lubicon was signed in December and Laboucan has said negotiations 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.

A deal is still expected to be two years away. But all parties hope progress on education and training can be made before then.

"This has been a long time in coming," said Prentice. "Alberta is standing ready, willing and able to fulfil its constitutional obligations to the Lubicon people."

Valcourt said the appointment of Peterson is an important step.

"There has been a significant demonstration of willingness and good will on the part of all parties to seriously attempt to resolve an important grievance," he said.

Peterson is a senior business executive with extensive experience in multi-party discussions to negotiate agreements and other arrangements.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960.