First Nation Sues Over Treaty Land Entitlement

By Jim West

A Saskatchewan First Nation has launched a $10 billion suit against the Saskatchewan and federal governments claiming it was “cheated out of” billions of dollars of area potash and oil developments. “As a people, we are sick and tired of being cheated out of the wealth that rightly belongs to us under our treaty and Canadian and international law,” said Chief Glen Pratt of the George Gordon First Nation.

The suit alleges that Canada and Saskatchewan denied the First Nation access to billions of dollars worth of potash and oil and gas lands due to government misconduct throughout the First Nation’s lands acquisitions process agreement under Saskatchewan’s Treaty Land Entitlement Settlement Agreement program signed in 2008. The First Nation says that it is still owed land under its treaty obligations before valuable resource lands were disposed to third parties. The lawsuit also brings up the issue of recent development at BHP Billiton Diamond’s underground Jansen mine, located within the George Gordon First Nation’s traditional territory. The Jansen mine project won government approval last year. Both the federal and Saskatchewan governments declined to comment on the case.

The George Gordon First Nation is supported by the business-savvy Onion Lake Cree First Nation. Chief Wallace Fox said government must consult, accommodate, and compensate First Nations when the Crown allows developers to explore and extract resources from First Nations traditional territories. “Our inherent and treaty rights are internationally recognized and constitutionally protected,” said Onion Lake Chief Wallace Fox. “There’s an obligation on both Canadian and Saskatchewan governments to find out from First Nations their interests in acquiring those lands first and in this case with the George Gordon First Nation, they were not consulted.” The resource-rich Nation is the largest oil-producing First Nation in Canada. Under its First Nation Treaty Land acquisitions, Onion Lake was able to establish the first band-owned and operated natural gas utility.

Onion Lake Energy has been in operation since 2003 and has over 400 oil producing mines and holds oil and gas permits on approximately 160,000 hectares of reserve land. Last year, the Onion Lake Cree Nation entered into an agreement with Fogo Energy allowing the nation not only to receive royalties, but also 50% of earnings made on every barrel of oil. “Calls for resource-revenue sharing will not stop as sub-surface rights were never ceded nor surrendered under treaty,” added Chief Fox. “We see resources from our traditional territories being extracted with very little or nothing coming back to First Nations, many of whom live in poverty.”

The George Gordon First Nation is not alone in its claims against the Jansen mine project. Saskatchewan’s Kawacatoose First Nation is demanding consultation from the province over environmental impacts of the Jansen mine located just 55 kilometres away. In a related development, the Kawacatoose First Nation has formed a joint venture with the U.S. Native American Resource Partners (NARP) to develop the First Nation’s potash resources. The First Nation sits on a rich deposit of potash, and Chief Darin Poorman said 14 different companies as far away as China and India have approached the community with development proposals in the last couple years. NARP and the newly created company Kawacatoose Energy Inc. will pursue the development of resource projects on lands secured through the Saskatchewan Treaty Land Entitlement program. NARP is a private equity firm with more than $5.7 billion in assets with offices in Calgary, Saskatoon and Salt Lake City.

Kawacatoose was instrumental in helping NARP create a structure that will benefit all Saskatchewan First Nations with a Treaty Land Entitlement allocation. NARP personnel are currently working with select First Nations in Saskatchewan to create similar partnerships with other First Nations. “First Nations in the province have long been resource rich but limited with respect to development capital,” said Chief Poorman. “We are excited to have a direct link to a capital provider like NARP.”