Construction of Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range


By early 1951, the government and air force officials had appraised several locations and identified an expanse of "unoccupied" Crown land east of Lac La Biche, Alberta. The proposed air weapons range would affect natural resource exploitation, commercial fishing, and an estimated seventy-five traplines. On 19 April 1951, Defense Minister Brooke Claxton informed the House of Commons that the bombing and gunnery range, roughly centered at Primrose Lake, would extend approximately 115 miles from east to west and 40 miles from north to south, totaling almost 4,490 square miles.

The range boundaries were constructed to avoid First Nations reserves, but federal officials recognized that First Nations and Métis trappers and fishermen had interests in the affected area. A number of Aboriginal groups considered the area around Primrose Lake their traditional territory. The Canoe Lake Cree (Saskatchewan) subsisted over a territory that extended west of Canoe Lake, including the McCusker and Arsenault Lake areas. Canoe Lake Cree elders speak of a 'rich and bountiful' land teeming with animals and fish that had provided livelihoods for 'generations and generations,' wherein people made 'a lot of money' and enjoyed an 'excellent' living. The IAB determined that more than one hundred treaty Indian families relied on the range for subsistence. The Canoe Lake band in Saskatchewan and the Cold Lake band in Alberta faced the heaviest impact. Indigenous people would be forced to leave behind cabins, traps, and equipment when the range was closed. The Department of National Defense offered some compensation, although the amounts were much smaller than what Indian Affairs had demanded, and only fishermen and trappers with provincial licenses were considered for compensation. As a result of having no alternative hunting and trapping grounds and being dislocated from their primary income-generating and subsistence activities, the economies of the Cold Lake Dene and the Canoe Lake Cree communities collapsed almost immediately. Indian Agents also noted that the topography and soil conditions in the area were not conducive to successful agriculture.