Indigenous leaders and the Opposition NDP critic for First Nation and Métis relations assembled at the Saskatchewan Legislature Monday, once again calling on the provincial government to halt an upcoming auction for Crown lands.
Betty Nippi-Albright, NDP MLA for Saskatoon Centre, and First Nations chiefs accused the Saskatchewan Party government of failing to fulfil its duty to consult — and warned there could be legal action as a result.
"The government of Saskatchewan is knowingly eroding our treaty rights and we're tired of it," said Nippi-Albright during a news conference.
Auctioning unoccupied Crown land has been a contentious issue for years.
The Ministry of Agriculture leases land to the highest eligible bidder through an online auction. Leases can last up to 33 years, according to the provincial government's website.
Last winter 27 lots of Crown land, totalling nearly 7,000 acres, were leased for about $449,000 combined, according to auction results.
The next leasing auction, set for Jan. 31, will allow eligible bidders to lease plots of land ahead of the upcoming growing and grazing season, a government spokesperson told CBC News. First Nations and Métis communities that are, or plan to be, involved in farming or ranching can also bid, they added.
Indigenous leaders have previously said the practice impedes people from accessing lands for traditional and cultural uses such as gatherings, hunting, fishing and trapping. According to Nippi-Albright, in some cases the lands contain burial sites.
Leaders have also said the practice goes against the Saskatchewan Treaty Land Entitlement Framework Agreement, legislation made in 1992 that lays out how to address outstanding treaty land entitlement obligations to First Nations in Saskatchewan.
Nippi-Albright and other Indigenous leaders renewed their calls Monday after learning of the auction scheduled at the end of the month.
Onion Lake Cree Nation is considering taking legal action against the provincial government, claiming it failed to consult ahead of the land auction.
The First Nation and Métis Consultation Policy Framework, which has been under review since last summer, says the provincial government "will consult with and accommodate" First Nations and Métis communities "as appropriate" ahead of decisions or actions that could negatively affect treaty and Indigenous rights, including long-term leases of Crown land.
Before land is leased, the Ministry of Agriculture reviews each parcel "consistent with" the framework to determine if there is a duty to consult. If so, the ministry will consult with affected communities before the auction, according to a provincial government spokesperson.
Onion Lake Cree Nation leaders are confident traditional lands surrounding the reserve are being affected in the upcoming auction, according to the Opposition NDP.
Terri Quinney, Onion Lake's duty-to-consult co-ordinator, told reporters Monday the nation wasn't notified and that she only learned of the auction while browsing online two weeks ago.
"We've tried working with [the provincial government] for years. We're telling them that we want them to stop what they're doing. This is a direct infringement on our treaty rights," Quinney said.
"Next steps, we'll have no choice but to go legal."
Quinney worries how many other nations' lands are affected, given Onion Lake Cree Nation only learned of the auction by reaching out to the government.
The length of time a lease can last is a main part of the issue.
On Monday several people noted that, because leases could be held for up to 33 years, it's possible generations of Indigenous people may not be able to practice their inherent right to hunting on treaty land, or show their children or grandchildren where their ancestors gathered.
They also worry about what will be left for future generations.
"We will explore our legal options to protect our rights and lands for our future generations of children relying on us," said Onion Lake Cree Nation Coun. Laurie Ann Jimmy.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, released a statement Monday saying it has been directed by First Nations leaders to intervene — and it will do so under the advice of its legal counsel.
In the statement, FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron stated the provincial government was contradicting its own policies that had been in place for 30 years.
Sask. First Act could make selling land easier: chief
Another pressing issue is the impact of the Saskatchewan First Act. The legislation, introduced last fall, reasserts the Saskatchewan government's jurisdiction over the province's natural resources.
Indigenous leaders, including the Treaty Commissioner of Saskatchewan, have questioned whether the province consulted with Indigenous people, claiming the act would infringe on treaty rights.
On Monday, Ochapowace Nation Chief Margaret Bear warned the act could make it easier for the provincial government to auction off traditional lands.
"The province will have an upper hand and control of our lands and resources in this province," Bear said.
Ochapowace Nation filed a lawsuit against the Saskatchewan and federal governments in 2019 regarding the sale of Crown lands and treaty land entitlements.
The nation is concerned that, through the auction of Crown land, it will never receive the acres owed to make it whole again, said Shelly Bear, the nation's headwoman of wealth.
The FSIN suggests Saskatchewan's Trespass to Property Amendment Act also reduces the amount of land available to First Nations people.
The legislation, implemented a year ago, forces anyone who wants to access a rural property for "recreational purposes" to get written, electronic or oral consent from the owner to do so, or face criminal charges.
Forestry management plan will bar Yellow Quill from traditional territory: Nippi-Albright
On Monday, the NDP also released a letter that the Saskatchewan government sent to the chief and council of Yellow Quill First Nation.
The letter — dated Dec. 30, 2022, but marked as received on Jan. 9 — informs the nation that the Ministry of Environment's forest service received a proposal to conduct forest management, and the ministry was seeking information about how the proposed work could affect their lands and how the nation uses it.
The province gave until Feb. 7 to respond, and the ministry expects to make a decision by March 9, the letter states.
If the proposal goes through, it would mark the second time that the people of Yellow Quill First Nation were barred from their traditional territory, Nippi-Albright said.