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Dene land defender Brian Grandbois and the struggle against the Cold Lake air force base

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Brian Grandbois at Unist'ot'en Camp. Image: Jeh Custerra/Facebook

If the Canadian government proceeds to spend $19 billion on 88 new fighter jets, a significant number of them will be stationed at 4 Wing / Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake, one of the two air force bases for tactical fighter squadrons in this country.

Today, a Canadian Armed Forces statement noted: "The Honourable Harjit S. Sajjan, Minister of National Defence, announced a $9.2-million contract award to EllisDon Construction Services Inc., of Edmonton, Alta., for the design of a new fighter jet facility at 4 Wing Cold Lake, one of two main operating bases for Canada's future fighter aircraft."

Dene Su'lene' land defenders have stated: "In 1952, we were forcibly evicted from our homelands [so that the base could be constructed]. In Suckerville [on the shores of Primrose Lake], our people had a 7-day sit-in, refusing to leave. Reluctantly, after heavy coercion from the government, a deal was made."

They add: "Our people left peacefully under the understanding that this was to be a short-term lease purely for military use, and that the 4,490 square miles of land was to be returned or re-negotiated after 20 years."

On June 3, 2001, Dene Su'lene' Warriors established a Peace Camp blockade 300 metres from the gate to the military base that also includes the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR) where live fire training exercises are conducted.

Also known as the Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range, it includes "an instrumented aerospace testing and evaluation range, a manned air-to-ground range (including a high explosive range), and an air-to-air gunnery range."

Land defender Brian Grandbois was one of the opponents of the military base at that time. In an interview, he told The Dominion: "My great-great-great-grandfather is buried there on a point on that lake where they bomb."

The Dene Warriors who set up the blockade stated: "They play with their air weapons and their fighter jets and all of their killing machines right on the homeland of the Dene who have confronted the giant military range by an unarmed peace camp."

By October 2001, the Band Council of the Cold Lake First Nation signed a $25.5 million settlement that would allow the military base and weapons range to continue. This amounted to $35 for each acre of the weapons range and $2,500 for each band member.

Even after a December 2001 referendum in which 625 band members voted in favour of the agreement, Warrior Publications noted: "Around 20 people are still at the camp regularly (despite bitter Winter cold), and they recently finished building their first permanent cabin and are in the process of building more."

In November 2012, Sandra Cuffe wrote: "The construction of the Cold Lake air force base and the million-hectare Cold Lake Air Weapons Range … resulted in the displacement of many Indigenous people from their traditional territories."

She highlighted: "Aside from a land claim settlement concerning the military base, the Cold Lake First Nation band council has also signed agreements with hydrocarbon corporations and owns a number of contracting companies serving the military and oil and gas industries."

Cuffe quotes Grandbois who said: "They're extracting huge amounts of resources, both in gas and oil … If you look in the Air Weapons Range today in 2012, you'll find the Denesuline are cleaning toilets for executives."

And in another article Cuffe noted: "In April 2013, people got together to defy the military restrictions and began making trips into the northeastern part of the CLAWR. They began preparations to build cabins, openly engaging in traditional land use activities and actively asserting their rights to their territory."

By July 2015, Al Jazeera reported that the eastern part of the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range was also the site of operations for five major oil companies.

Grandbois passed on to the spirit world on February 14, 2019. This seven-minute video posted after his death features Grandbois speaking at the Unist'ot'en Action Camp in 2015 about the ongoing struggles on his territory, including against the air weapons range.

If the Canadian government proceeds as planned, a transnational corporation will begin manufacturing fighter jets in 2022 that will start to be deployed at Cold Lake in 2025. Those are the warplanes that will continue to fly over the traditional territories of Dene, Cree and Métis peoples on Treaty 6, Treaty 8 and Treaty 10 lands.

Brent Patterson is the executive director of Peace Brigades International-Canada. He extends a special thank you to Colin Stuart who sparked the idea for this article that originally appeared on the PBI-Canada website. 

Image: Jeh Custerra/Facebook

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