Onion Lake Cree Nation filed legal papers in court April 13 challenging the Saskatchewan First Act, which received Royal Assent last week.
“We will not allow Saskatchewan to run roughshod over our treaties, our rights and our jurisdictions, over our lands and resources in the name of advancing (its) economic agenda while putting us aside,” said Onion Lake Okimaw Henry Lewis.
And Onion Lake is not standing alone.
Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC) and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) have given their full support.
At the heart of the matter, said legal counsel Michael Marchen of Hladun and Co., is a law that asserts and confirms “Saskatchewan’s jurisdiction, but without any acknowledgement whatsoever that, under treaty, the Crown agreed to share the land and resources with Onion Lake Cree Nation and other Indigenous peoples who first made treaty with the Crown.”
Through the Act, Saskatchewan asserts and confirms the province’s exclusive jurisdiction over natural resources, including who can be licensed and where and how exploration can take place.
Since the Sask. First Act was introduced as Bill 88 by Premier Scott Moe’s governing Saskatchewan Party last year, Indigenous nations and organizations have been consistent in demanding time with him to speak about the Bill.
There has been no consultation on the Act from when it was introduced until it received Royal Assent April 6, said Lewis.
Treaties were signed between First Nations and Canada, said Onion Lake Vice Chief Richard Derocher of the MLTC, and not with the province.
“We have the relationship with…Canada, and every time that moves further and further away from us, it takes away our treaties. It makes our treaties a little bit smaller and weaker. And this is what’s happening with the Sask. First Act. The treaty intent is moving further and further and further away from the delegates that signed treaty,” said Derocher.
MLTC had voiced their concerns to Moe, he said. However, instead of receiving a response, three weeks later the Bill was passed and their concerns had not been addressed.
“Anytime we move further from the treaties, we become less as nations,” said Derocher.
Dutch Lerat, second Vice Chief for FSIN, said his organization would continue to fight for rights and treaty holders and ensure they are included in any resource developments.
“We will continue to seek certainty. Everybody wants certainty…We want certainty for our First Nations in terms of inclusion, inclusion of the resources from this province of Saskatchewan within our treaty areas,” said Lerat.
Saskatoon Centre MLA Betty Nippi-Albright stood with the First Nations and lauded Lewis and Onion Lake Cree Nation for being leaders and protecting their inherent and treaty rights.
Consultation must be meaningful, said Nippi-Albright, which means respectful dialogue.
Marchen described Onion Lake’s legal action as“both a response and a challenge to Saskatchewan’s purported exclusive legislative jurisdiction.”
He said the statement of claim lays out how the Saskatchewan First Act infringes upon Onion Lake’s rights to pursue traditional ceremonies, hunting, fishing and trapping and negates the “guarantees of livelihood and freedom.” It also was enacted without input or consultation with or consideration of Onion Lake.
Among the legal arguments Onion Lake is using to challenge Saskatchewan is that the Act is outside the province’s jurisdiction and the Act directly impacts and overlaps lands reserved for Onion Lake Cree Nation.
Onion Lake is asking for the court to declare that the Sask. First Act infringes upon treaty and falls outside of the jurisdiction of Saskatchewan and therefore is not in force. Onion Lake is looking for temporary and permanent injunctions.
Onion Lake Cree Nation, which straddles the Saskatchewan and Alberta border, has also taken legal action against the Alberta United Conservative Party government.
In December, Alberta enacted the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, also without consultation with First Nations. The Sovereignty Act infringes upon the rights guaranteed to Onion Lake Cree Nation through Treaty that was signed with Canada, said the nation in its statement of claim.
At that time, Lewis promised to take legal action against Saskatchewan if it enacted the Sask. First Act.
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,
Original Published on Apr 18, 2023