Assembly of First Nations (AFN) chiefs have backed the Kelly Lake Cree Nation's claim to a vast swath of territory stretching from Central Alberta to the Peace River.
The 40,000-square kilometre claim stretches from Kelly Lake, 50 kilometres south of Dawson Creek, north to the Peace River and down to Jasper National Park. Kelly Lake's claim was endorsed by the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly at the organization's annual meeting this week.
The nation, which is incorporated under the B.C. Society Act, filed a comprehensive claim against the federal government in 1996, followed by a civil claim against B.C. in 2010. The government of Canada does not officially recognize Kelly Lake as a First Nation under the Indian Act.
The matter has not been before a judge.
The Kelly Lake Cree Nation claims Canada "continues to discriminate" against them "by failing to acknowledge their existence and by failing to consult with them on the use of their traditional lands and resources," the AFN resolution states.
"We've never been in court, we've been in case management," said hereditary Chief Cliff Calliou. "In 2016 we're ready to go to court if the government of Canada doesn't want to put some kind of a framework on the table to work on."
The First Nations people living around Kelly Lake are descendants of Cree and Beaver people, and also claim lineage to Iroquois trappers who travelled with the North West Company in the 1700s. Many of the 800 members speak Cree.
In 1915, their ancestors were "pushed out" of their settlement at Jasper House to make way for the Canadian Northern Pacific railway, the group claims. They say they were similarly pushed out of Grande Prairie in 1916.
In a 1997 filing with the Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs, Kelly Lake claimed damages of around $5.2 billion "for profits taken by the defendants (Canada) from the exploitation of resources of the plaintiffs, and interest."
Establishing a claim to the land involves both historical research and genealogy work. The group counts 13 family lineages, and has set a Dec. 31 deadline for people in those families to register as members of the nation. Another society, Foothills First Nation, also seeks to represent Aboriginal people in the area.
Calliou said he hopes Kelly Lake will be recognized as a "self-governing, self-determined nation," a model different from the Indian Act.
He hopes Justin Trudeau's government will be receptive to the claim, saying the AFN endorsement helps their negotiating position.
"We asked the Harper government several times to see if they were interested in negotiating this claim, and unfortunately we never got any real direct response," Calliou said.
The outcome of the claim will have big implications for natural resources. The group is contemplating oil and gas levies for development in the territory if the claim is successful, according to a release. The territory includes the right-of-way for the Northern Gateway pipeline.
Calliou's hope is the government will settle out of court through negotiations.
"If it doesn't, then we're ready to go to court," he said.