Throne speech ignored First Nation land rights, Sask. treaty commissioner says

The Saskatchewan Treaty Commissioner's office says the throne speech on Wednesday ignored inherent First Nations land rights. (Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press - image credit)
The Saskatchewan Treaty Commissioner's office says the throne speech on Wednesday ignored inherent First Nations land rights. (Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The Saskatchewan government has promised sweeping changes to legislation to defend its jurisdiction over natural resources, but the province's treaty commissioner says it ignores inherent First Nations land rights.

Lt.-Gov. Russ Mirasty laid out the provincial government's agenda for the fall sitting of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly on Wednesday in a throne speech that focused on defining, defending and holding exclusive jurisdiction over its natural resources.

The speech said Ottawa has done "an end-run around Saskatchewan's constitutional jurisdiction over natural resources under the guise of environmental regulation."

Moe has hinted at the changes to the Saskatchewan Act in the past few weeks, including in his white paper and during public speeches about the upcoming legislative session.

Despite the length of time the government has been considering the changes, Saskatchewan's Office of the Treaty Commissioner says they are not in the interest of citizens, governments, industry or treaty rights holders, and "offends the Treaty and inherent rights of Indigenous people."

First Nations hold inherent rights to the land and natural resources of Canada.  - Office of the Treaty Commissioner of Saskatchewan

In a statement released Thursday, the office said "there continues to be no consideration to the impacts of implementing these measures to First Nation inherent rights to access those resources," calling it a "complete disregard of obligations and infringement of Treaty."

"First Nations hold inherent rights to the land and natural resources of Canada, they are not stakeholder groups," the statement says. "They are to be co-decision makers and acts such as these need to be written collaboratively, taking a holistic view of socio, environmental and cultural issues, not just impacts to the economy."

In an email to CBC News on Friday, the government defended the throne speech, saying it specifically highlights "important work taking place with First Nation and northern partners in Saskatchewan, including economic development opportunities, Indigenous policing and the ongoing work of updating the First Nation and Métis Consultation Policy Framework. Engaging with First Nations and Metis partners across the province is a priority that greatly contributes to Saskatchewan's growth and benefits all communities."

As well, the email continues, "the Ministry of Government Relations continues to work in partnership with First Nations and the federal government to implement the 36 Treaty Land Entitlement Agreements and negotiate settlements on the outstanding claims. Since 1992, the provincial and federal governments have committed $687 million for Treaty Land Entitlement settlements. These settlement dollars enable economic opportunities for First Nations."

Critique of Moe's white paper

Moe's white paper, Drawing the Line: Defending Saskatchewan's Economic Autonomy, discusses asserting power over the province's natural resources as outlined during the throne speech, which has already been criticized for its omission of First Nations' rights.

In a news release, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nation communities in Saskatchewan, called the omissions a "direct threat to First Nations inherent and Treaty rights as recognized and affirmed by Section 35 of the Constitution."

When asked about the omission at the time, Moe defended the white paper saying he and other MLAs frequently speak with people of all backgrounds, and the government had spoken with Indigenous people across the province.

Bryan Eneas/CBC
Bryan Eneas/CBC

Kathy Walker, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan, told CBC News at the time that the Supreme Court of Canada and lower courts have consistently recognized the rights of First Nations.

She said its expanded the duty of other governments to consult and accommodate Indigenous communities.

In reference to the throne speech, the Saskatchewan Treaty Commissioner's office pointed to the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which says the provincial and federal government must consult with First Nations and get consent before adopting measures that might affect them.

Article 32 of UNDRIP reads: "States shall consult and co-operate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.

"First Nation's people have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for exercising their right to development," the office said.

The office said the treaty commissioner would be sending a letter to the provincial government for "these breaches of Treaty."