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Hobbema, Alta., seen in 2008. The Alberta First Nations community officially undergoes a name change to Maskwacis, its traditional Cree name, on Jan. 1, 2014.

IAN JACKSON/EPIC PHOTOGRAPHY/The Globe and Mail

The coming year will be of special significance for Hobbema as the Alberta First Nations community officially undergoes a name change to Maskwacis, its traditional Cree name, on Jan. 1.

The change, to be marked with a New Year's Eve round dance and feast – complete with bannock, berries and wild game – is seen as a long-desired step to empower the community bestowed with a name convenient to English speakers, which has become known for its struggles with gangs and shootings.

First Nations regularly request that Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada formally allow a name change to reflect a more traditional – or more accurate – name for the community, or replace the word "band" with "First Nation." For example, in October, the Sudbury-area Whitefish Lake First Nation changed its name back to Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation, which it described as a reclaiming of its old name. And the former Canoe Creek Indian Band located in the Cariboo region of British Columbia formally changed its name to the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation.

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"It gives the ownership back to the community," said Cyndie Buffalo, band administrator for the Samson Cree Nation, one of four bands that make up Maskwacis. "This is Maskwacis, it's not Hobbema any more."

According to the Samson Cree Nation, the area 70 kilometres south of Edmonton has been known as Hobbema since 1891, when then Canadian Pacific Railway president Sir William Cornelius Van Horne named the train station after a Dutch landscape painter he admired. But Maskwacis – meaning Bear Hills – has never faded from use within the community itself. Already, the employment centre, the health board and the college use the name.

The community says the name change signifies respect for the language and the First Nation's authority over its traditional territories.

Ms. Buffalo said Ottawa informed the community of the name change about two months ago, after years of waiting.

"It's always been there in our minds," said Ms. Buffalo. "To me it's the understanding that yes, now they're finally using our terminology."

Maskwacis has a population of about 12,500, made up of four First Nations: the Samson Cree Nation, the Ermineskin Cree Nation, the Louis Bull Tribe and the Montana First Nation. The name Hobbema has been associated with boarded-up and burnt-out houses, shootings and infighting between gangs.

But Ms. Buffalo said the community has changed in recent years with youth initiatives and holistic health and social services.

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A recent influx of RCMP officers who act as a part of the community – recently helping to hand out food hampers – has also helped. "It's been really progressive."

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