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Ron Quintal, the president of the Fort McKay Métis, shakes hands with Richard Feehan, Alberta's Minister of Indigenous Relations, after announcing a deal that will see the Métis community purchase 150 hectares of land they have long inhabited.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Ron Quintal hopes the purchase of 150 hectares of Alberta’s boreal forest is a step forward for his tiny Métis community that sits encircled by oil sands projects – as well as an example of the possibilities that lie ahead for the Métis people as a whole.

The Fort McKay Métis have reached a $1.6-million deal with the Alberta government to buy the territory they have long leased from the province – a purchase they say is the first of its kind in Canada and another significant advancement for a group that has long had no terra firma to call its own.

“To be a functioning community, you need a land base,” said Mr. Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis community, 45 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

“We’re already self-governing, but we want to formalize that. That’s the next step. And this land is ultimately the platform.”

The announcement comes nearly two years after a pivotal Supreme Court of Canada decision that examined Métis rights in Canada.

The court ruling, in what has become known as the Daniels case, concluded that Métis and non-status Indians are “Indians” within the meaning of Canada’s 1867 Constitution. The 2016 ruling was not a direct order to the federal government to provide specific programs and benefits to the Métis and non-status Indians, but opened the door to those groups being included in enhanced social benefits and land claims.

“Everyone is taking us more seriously. We’re no longer the forgotten people,” Mr. Quintal said.

The Daniels decision, he said, gave Métis communities leverage − and by becoming a landowner, the Fort McKay are further ahead in pursuing their ultimate goal of self-government and a constitution. The land deal specifically will help the 100-person Métis community move forward with development plans including new houses, a cultural pavilion, a gas station with a car wash – and hopefully even a Tim Hortons franchise that will draw workers to the community from Highway 63, the main oil sands thoroughfare.

Still, the Fort McKay are setting a distinct example by taking out a loan to buy their own land, and are perhaps uniquely positioned among many Métis communities to make such a move. Located in a hamlet surrounded by massive oil sands projects and camps – and right alongside the Fort McKay First Nation – the Fort McKay Métis and other Indigenous communities in the area have seen traditional hunting, fishing and gathering sites swallowed up by bitumen mines, roads and other industrial development.

However, the community also has steady revenue streams through its oil-servicing companies, joint ventures and impact and benefit agreements with oil-producing companies.

“We’re successful because of our location. The oil sands pay the bills,” Mr. Quintal said.

In 2014, the Fort McKay Métis purchased about 50 hectares of leased community lands from the government for the nominal sum of $1. Wednesday’s announcement – a deal struck at a price Mr. Quintal and the government said was at market value – brings their total land ownership to roughly 200 hectares. He said he could have tried to negotiate another nominal sum land transfer, but it’s a long, drawn-out process.

“The community wants to build now.”

Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson said the deal shows the province and the McKay Métis can work together “as we continue on the path toward reconciliation.”

Métis Nation president Clément Chartier said that as negotiations and court battles with Ottawa play out, there might come a day when Métis communities are given land instead of having to buy it. But for now, Fort McKay’s unusual path is a good one. Mr. Chartier − who hails from the Saskatchewan village of Buffalo Narrows, which counts a significant Métis population − added, “If we had the money, and we could buy our villages, and buy the lands around them, I’m sure we would do that, too.”

The Fort McKay Métis are also pursuing a path that is different from most other Métis communities within their own province, which established formal Métis settlements in 1938.

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