New warplanes signal the Canadian military’s continued occupation of Dene Su’lene’ lands in northern Alberta

Published by Brent Patterson on

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On November 23, Ottawa-area activists held the ‘Defund Warplanes’ banner as the Speech from the Throne was being read. Photo by Koozma J. Tarasoff.

The displacement of Indigenous peoples and the state’s militarization of their territories includes the stationing of warplanes on these lands.

This includes the current deployment of CF-18s on Dene Su’lene’ lands in northern Alberta, where Canada’s new warplanes would also be based.

In August 2020, the Canadian government awarded a $9.2 million contract for a new fighter jet facility at the base that would house the new warplanes, widely expected to be F-35s. That work is to start in the summer of 2022 while the jets are to arrive in 2025.

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 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.”

Grandbois passed on to the spirit world on February 14, 2019.

When we were on Wet’suwet’en territory this past week we met with Grandbois’ nephew who knows the stories of the land defence struggle against the Cold Lake air base. We look forward to connecting with him and amplifying those stories of resistance.

Further reading: Five questions for Ministers Filomena Tassi and Anita Anand on the purchase of Canada’s new fleet of fighter jets.

Dene Su’lene’ land defender Brian Grandbois.

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