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Rights to a large swath of Edmonton's south end are up for debate today before the Supreme Court of Canada, where natives will argue that Ottawa swindled their ancestors into surrendering the land in the 1880s.

The Whitemud Freeway now hums through the 77 square kilometres of disputed territory in Edmonton, a highly developed urban area with hotels, fast-food chains and an IKEA store.

About 40 aboriginals claiming to be descendants of the Papaschase Indian Band are in Ottawa today to argue that the land is theirs. They say the federal government, under pressure from Edmonton's white settlers, tricked three of their ancestors into surrendering their entire reserve in 1889.

The land has been developed to the point where it is worth at least $2.5-billion, they say. And while they don't want to turf the thousands of Edmontonians living there, they want to go to court for financial compensation.

"We just don't think a surrender by three people will pass muster," said lawyer Ron Maurice, who has been working with the natives over the past 10 years as they revive the Papaschase band. "That was, in effect, an illegal, invalid surrender according the Indian Act of the day."

The now-defunct Edmonton Bulletin newspaper, owned by politician Frank Oliver, launched an aggressive public relations offensive at the time that natives say proved very damaging to their rights. The campaign persuaded Ottawa, they argue, to shut down the then-recently-created Papaschase reserve in the 1880s to make room for European settlers.

The natives claim Indian Affairs "maliciously and arbitrarily" reclassified 84 band members in 1880 as "Edmonton Stragglers" to reduce the reserve's population. Then Ottawa tricked many of the Papaschase - who were starving due to the disappearance of the plains buffalo - into becoming Métis and surrendering treaty rights secured a decade before, the natives say.

Finally, in 1889, the statement of claim argues, Indian Affairs persuaded three of the remaining band members to sign a document surrendering the reserve to Ottawa, which then sold off the land.

Derrick Pieters, an Edmonton-based spokesman for the federal Justice Department, said Ottawa will argue that the case should not be allowed to go to court because the Papaschase are no longer a recognized band. Further, the government says the case is too old to revisit.

"The plaintiffs are not a recognized Indian band," he said. "Therefore, they lack standing to bring the claim."

The lawsuit is being led by Rose Lameman, who is the great-great-granddaughter of chief Papastayo, the reserve's first chief. Ms. Lameman recreated the Papaschase Indian Band in 1999 and was elected chief, but Ottawa does not recognize the group.

Ms. Lameman is one of five status Indians who sued Ottawa on behalf of all Papaschase descendants. So far, about 800 people have signed affidavits claiming to have some ethnic connection to the band, and it is estimated the total number of descendants could be nearly 5,000.

Possible evidence of native use of the land surfaced just last month when a coffin containing human remains was discovered by construction workers building an extension to Edmonton's light-rail transit line.

Cree activist Gerald Delorme, who says he's a member of the Edmonton Stragglers, called for the construction to be halted in light of the discovery. Mr. Delorme lost the argument. The city quickly cleared the coffin and resumed construction.

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