The Moe government could end up in court with the First Nations over resource development


As Premier Moe aims to assert province jurisdiction over resources, First Nations say he is missing a key piece of history.

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Onion Lake Cree National Councilor Bernadine Harper stood on a podium in the Saskatchewan Legislative Building earlier this week, holding up a feather and recounting a piece of history.

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Oral teachings, she said, have long declared that traditional land should never be abandoned once the treaty has been signed. Instead, they were to be divided to the depth of a plow in exchange for help when in need.

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“When the interpreters were made back then, the elders who sat at that negotiating circle asked the settlers and the interpreters for the Queen’s representative, ‘Do you want to take the land?’ And they said ‘no,'” Harper explained. “These are the negotiations that have been conducted and they are not being heard at this time.”

Since that signing nearly 150 years ago, many indigenous leaders say they have been left out of important decisions, particularly when it comes to sharing natural resources.

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Prime Minister Scott Moes White Paper on Economic Autonomythey say is no different.

“We weren’t even consulted,” Henry Lewis, Chief of the Onion Lake Cree Nation, said in a recent interview.

As part of his proposal, Moe wants Saskatchewan to be able to produce more goods, all within constitutional limits, even if it potentially means sidestepping some federal climate policies.

When the federal government transferred responsibility for resources and crown lands to Saskatchewan in 1930, there were no Indigenous leaders at the table. They have always maintained that they have never relinquished their rights to the minerals in the soil.

If anything, they say they only received jewelry while watching the province get a bigger bounty.

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“If I’m going to be honest, all I can say is that the resources were stolen from right below us,” Lewis said. “Well, this is all ongoing.”

Following the announcement of Moe’s paper, some First Nations leaders have considered taking the Moe and Ottawa governments to court over resource ownership. Should Moe find itself in another legal battle with the federal government, this could be an opportune time for First Nations to resolve the resource issue.

“We have never given up our claims,” ​​said poundmaker Cree Nation Duane Antoine in a recent interview. “When these were all signed off, First Nations were still in their permitting system. We couldn’t leave the reserves.”

Antoine said he and several First Nations are among those considering litigation, although he could not provide details on what potential legal action would look like.

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Like Harper, he said that Indigenous leaders wanted land to be divided only to the depth of a plough.

“We are tired of having our minerals, lands and resources taken from us. It’s time for us to step up as First Nations people,” he said. “We’d love to work with the provincial government, but it seems they just don’t want to work with any of our First Nations.”

Pasqua First Nation Chief Matthew T. Peigan speaks to the press in September 2020.
Pasqua First Nation Chief Matthew T. Peigan speaks to the press in September 2020. Photo by Evan Radford /jpeg
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Pasqua First Nations Chief Matthew Todd Peigan is also not holding back, saying recent decisions by Canada’s Supreme Court have increasingly recognized First Nations rights.

Moe’s actions, he said, could lead to a lawsuit.

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“Moe shoots wildly from the hip and doesn’t obey the law of the lands,” Peigan said. “Pasqua will not stand by and let this happen. We are already armed for a fight. And if it’s a lawsuit where he wants to put everything on hold, that’s fine, we can do that.

In a recent press release from the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), Vice Chief Heather Bear said that First Nations “have no choice but to consider their legal options” if the province ignores its constitutional obligations.

The FSIN has said Moe’s plan is “a direct threat to aboriginal and treaty rights” recognized in Section 35 of the Constitution.

Moe has said his proposals are not meant to be a fight with Ottawa, although he has portrayed the federal government as an aggressor.

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He plans to introduce legislation this fall aimed at clarifying Saskatchewan’s constitutional rights. Though details aren’t available yet, he’s also considering other legislative options for the province to keep oil and gas emissions and production going.

“We shouldn’t be backing away from what we’re making here (or) how we’re making it in any way,” Moe said during his announcement at North Battleford last week.

While Saskatchewan has constitutional powers to manage its natural resources, environmental stewardship continues to be challenged.

For example Saskatchewan lost his case because of the CO2 tax because the Supreme Court has ruled that the threat of climate change requires a national approach. In the meantime, Alberta’s Supreme Court has ruled Bill C-69 unconstitutional because it puts provinces like Saskatchewan in an “economic stranglehold.”

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Bill C-69 revises the permitting process for major infrastructure projects, allowing Ottawa to assess how such projects impact climate change. The federal government has also said the bill will improve reconciliation.

Peigan said that while the bill isn’t perfect, it allows First Nations people to be more involved in the process. As much as he wants to share the wealth, he said there is environmental responsibility.

“When tribal peoples resist resource development, it is for three reasons only: to ensure the air, land and water are protected,” he said. “It’s not just about preserving the lives of indigenous people, but also of people’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Lewis said governments need to better understand the contractual relationship perspective; it means First Nations deserve their fair share.

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“From the perspective of the elders, the land is never for sale to us, so we keep that connection to the land,” Lewis said. “But we are beggars on our own land while our resources are developed. It is not right when people are struggling and trying to support their families.”

On the podium, Harper said it was time to “reconcile reconciliation.”

“We are not expected to live in these reserves. And our population keeps growing,” she said. “We are still here, we are strong and we are people.”

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