Onion Lake Cree Nation has filed a lawsuit against the Alberta government saying its controversial Sovereignty Act is an infringement on treaty rights.
The Cree nation is seeking a declaration from the Court of King’s Bench that the Act unjustifiably infringes on treaty rights and is of no force and effect.
Onion Lake Chief Henry Lewis announced the legal action Monday at the River Cree Resort and Casino in Enoch, Alta.
Lewis said in a statement the province made no effort to consult with the community and the Act is offensive to the spirit and intent of Treaty 6.
“Not once did the government of Alberta meet with us about the proposed law to ask input into how it would impact us,” said Lewis. “Even the minister of Indigenous relations admitted that not enough consultation had been done.
“What does that say about the government of Alberta’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples when the minister in charge of Indigenous Relations says more could have been done?”
James Bear, a member of Onion Lake Cree Nation, which straddles the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan, said there’s considerable confusion over the legislation.
“So if this goes through we have to abide by Alberta’s laws? I don’t understand why we (Onion Lake or any other reserve in Alberta) have to be included in this,” Bear said.
“I feel like we are slowly getting everything taken away from us as Indigenous people…If this happens I think our leaders won’t have a say because Alberta leaders will be in another room making more decisions.”
The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, also known as Bill 1, was passed on Dec. 8 and has been criticized by other First Nations and Indigenous organizations.
The Chiefs of Treaty Six First Nation released a statement in support of Onion Lake Cree Nation.
“The Confederacy of Treaty 6 supports our relatives in Onion Lake and their steps to take court action against Alberta. The Sovereignty Act puts our Treaty and Inherent Rights at risk. The Confederacy of Treaty Six is still weighing our options for future action,” said the statement.
Statement of Claim
The statement of claim notes that during the legislative debate several members of the Alberta legislature made a point about the lack of consultation with First Nations.
The claim alleges the Act infringes on the rights of Onion Lake members to pursue traditional ceremonies, associations and way of life (hunting, fishing, trapping) because it seems to circumvent the original agreements in place between First Nations and the Crown.
It further alleges the Act negates the guarantees of livelihood and freedom that Treaty 6 was made to protect.
And, it claims, their rights are being derogated (relaxed or made exempt) by substituting treaty agreements for the “fiat” of the Lieutenant Governor.
The legislation is rookie Premier Danielle Smith’s marquee policy aimed at asserting Alberta’s rights within Canada.
The bill stipulates her government can take action when responding to what it deems federal over-reach into provincial areas of authority, such as energy development. It instructs provincial agencies to flout federal laws.
Saskatchewan has a sovereignty bill (Bill 88) before its legislature that would also affect Onion Lake.
“The government of Saskatchewan still has an opportunity to withdraw Bill 88 and hear from us before a second piece of unconstitutional law is passed,” Lewis in his statement.
Meanwhile, Smith’s office said it doesn’t comment on ongoing legal matters.
“Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act is constitutional and does not interfere or undermine Indigenous and treaty rights,” it said.
Opposition NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir said Smith and her United Conservative government have ignored warnings from First Nations leaders.
“Today’s court challenge is the direct result of the UCP’s utter failure to respect and uphold their duty to consult with First Nations,” Sabir said in a news release. “It’s an avoidable setback for reconciliation and a blow to economic certainty.”
Onion Lake has a population of more than 6,000 members.
With files from the Canadian Press