Sask. First Act passes in front of gallery full of First Nations and Métis people opposed to bill

Indigenous leaders and groups were at the Saskatchewan Legislature on Thursday to oppose the passing of the Saskatchewan First Act. (CBC / Radio-Canada - image credit)
Indigenous leaders and groups were at the Saskatchewan Legislature on Thursday to oppose the passing of the Saskatchewan First Act. (CBC / Radio-Canada - image credit)

Provincial government members voted unanimously to pass the Saskatchewan First Act on Thursday in front of a gallery full of First Nations and Métis community members who travelled to the legislature in opposition of the bill.

Last fall, the government introduced Bill 88, saying it would confirm the province's autonomy and jurisdiction over its natural resources.

The act "asserts its exclusive legislative jurisdiction under the Constitution of Canada, and in particular, those matters listed in sections 92 and 92A of the Constitution Act,1867."

The act says Saskatchewan has jurisdiction over the following:

  • Exploration of non-renewable resources.

  • Development, conservation and management of non-renewable natural and forestry resources.

  • Operation of sites and facilities for generation and production of electricity.

  • Regulation of all industries and businesses falling within provincial jurisdiction.

  • Regulation of fertilizer use.

Premier Scott Moe said the bill is meant to benefit all Saskatchewan people. He said it is designed to "prevent federal intrusion into provincial jurisdiction, which is in all people's best interest in this province."

The passage of Bill 88 on Thursday was a formality, thanks to the Saskatchewan Party government having a voting majority. All Saskatchewan Party MLAs in attendance voted in favour of the bill, as did Saskatchewan United Party Leader Nadine Wilson.

Opposition NDP members stood and voted against the bill. While they stood, the Indigenous guests in the gallery stood in a show of solidarity.

The bill has been criticized by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which represents Saskatchewan's First Nations.

The FSIN has said the bill infringes on treaty rights. On Thursday, the FSIN "reaffirmed" its opposition to the act and said it wants to be included in revenue sharing from natural resources.

"First Nations leaders believe the province of Saskatchewan does not have the legal authority to assert exclusive jurisdiction over natural resources, as Treaties signed with First Nations take precedence and pre-date the creation of the government," the FSIN said in a statement.

"FSIN will take legal action to oppose the Act, as it infringes on First Nations Inherent and Treaty Rights to land, water and resources."

Last fall, the legislative assembly of the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan (MN-S) unanimously rejected Bill 88.

The bill was amended before passage Thursday. Government MLA for Athabasca Jim Lemaigre moved to make three changes, most notably to include the following:

"Nothing in the Act abrogates or derogates from the existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada that are recognized and affirmed by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982."

Moe said the inclusion of the amendments was done to clarify that the Bill does not infringe on Indigenous rights.

"There is no question as to what the government's intent is. This bill is not in any way there to circumvent or change or modify the treaty rights that all Indigenous people most certainly have access to."

MN-S vice-president calls bill 'short-sighted,' 'divisive'

Michelle LeClair, vice-president of MN-S, was among the people that were seated in the galleries who stood up when the Opposition stood before voting no.

"It was a show of support for them to say no because we say no, enough is enough."

LeClair called the bill "short-sighted" and "dismissive."

"To say that we are profoundly disappointed by the passage of this bill would be an understatement."

LeClair said the bill "potentially could create such an impact on our rights. Our hunting, gathering, our ceremonies, all of those things will be greatly diminished."

Camille Cusset/Radio-Canada
Camille Cusset/Radio-Canada

LeClair said the government has not met or consulted with MN-S on the bill.

"I don't know who they have been talking to. We heard the word dialogue throughout the minister's speech. But we haven't had any dialogue or discussions with the provincial government."

Moe and the government have dismissed claims that they did not consult with First Nations before introducing the bill last year.

LeClair said Justice Minister Bronwyn Eyre suggesting the MN-S cancelled a meeting is "disingenuous."

"Consultation has to start early, it has to start before a bill is introduced."

LeClair said she wrote to the minister to have a "nation-to-nation dialogue," but did not hear back.

Opposition witnesses not allowed to take part in committee discussion

On Wednesday, the bill was discussed at committee for more than five hours.

Opposition justice critic Nicole Sarauer wanted to have Indigenous leaders who travelled to attend committee participate as witnesses and question Justice Minister Bronwyn Eyre and officials, but that motion was denied by government members on the committee.

A government spokesperson said Thursday that the Opposition critic made "numerous surprise motions without notice," and that if Sarauer wanted to have witnesses appear she should have "provided notice in writing to the committee clerk in advance of the meeting."

Sarauer said Thursday that she believes Bill 88 will not fundamentally change any of the province's future court challenges over jurisdiction with the federal government.

She said she thinks Bill 88 "will be challenged" in court by Indigenous leaders sooner rather than later.