Along Highway 881, about 30 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, Alta., a newly installed sign that reads Welcome to Willow Lake Métis Nation points to a 205-acre swath of land. This land, affectionately known as “the farm” by locals, has just become more than a mere field near a beautiful, expansive lake. 

To the people of the Willow Lake Métis Nation (WLMN), this parcel of land holds promise for the future; it will be a place to gather, a place that will allow them to reignite and celebrate their culture, grow and harvest food, create jobs and even generate their own power. 

As much as the WLMN has lived off the land by harvesting, trapping and fishing, until now they were a community without any actual land to call their own. 

WLMN and its members are scattered across Alberta, many residing in the northeastern part of the province. But now, with the recent purchase of this land located near Anzac, referred to as sohkastwâwin, the people of this Métis community have a place to call home. 

“This historic land purchase is foundational,” says WLMN CEO Justin Bourque. “We now have the ability to build a home for the community. It’s a resilient view and all part of a bigger plan to be recognized as a modern-day settlement on our own lands.” 

A newly installed sign that reads Welcome to Willow Lake Métis Nation
Along Highway 881, about 30 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, a newly installed sign that reads Welcome to Willow Lake Métis Nation. 

The act of being resilient

Sohkastwâwin, a Cree word meaning the act of being resilient, will allow the community to reset its ecosystem, become self-sustaining and be a place the people of WLMN can finally call home.

In 2021, WLMN, seven other Indigenous communities in the Wood Buffalo region and Suncor entered the Astisiy Limited Partnership, which acquired all of TC Energy’s 15 per cent equity interest in the Northern Courier Pipeline—a 90 kilometre dual pipeline that carries hot or diluted bitumen and diluents between Suncor’s Fort Hills site to its East Tank Farm facility. The partnership meant revenue from the line would be used to support communities and people while also ensuring Indigenous involvement in a major energy project. WLMN, in less than a year of Astisiy becoming final, has earned enough revenue from that partnership to purchase its own land. 

“It’s astronomical the opportunity this land purchase provides to us—to retain culture and community, a place to gather and opportunities to combat climate change. Part of our story is our resilience as a community. Sohkastwâwin is reflective of us as a community because of our resilience.”

The community gathered for the first time on its newly acquired land in early June, during National Indigenous History Month, to announce and celebrate this historic moment for the community. The sounds of traditional Métis music filled the air, while children wearing ribbons skirts and sashes mimicked Métis jiggers by doing their best sash dance and Red River jig in front of the stage. 

“We’ve been working with WLMN and the other Indigenous communities involved in Astisiy for years and we heard from them how critical opportunities like this are to their communities,” says Suncor’s Manager of Indigenous and Community Relations for the Wood Buffalo region, Brienne Alarcon. “It’s wonderful to see the successes of this partnership coming to life in such a short time and we look forward to seeing what’s to come for the community.” 

As the formal portion of the day came to an end, Justin took to the microphone to address the crowd one last time: “You are all standing here today to celebrate the WLMN land acquisition, but more importantly you are standing here today as proof in our belief, as proof that mamawi—a Cree word for ‘together’—we can achieve the impossible.”

WLMN gathered for the first time on its newly acquired land in early June, during National Indigenous History Month, to announce and celebrate this historic moment for the community.