Current Problems

Treaties and Land Claims

Why Indigenous leaders are speaking out against ‘sovereignty’ efforts in Alberta and Saskatchewan

December 29, 2022

First Nations signed treaties with the federal government, not provincial ones, and fear separatist premiers will impinge on long-standing agreements.

As Alberta and Saskatchewan pursue quasi-separatist agendas, no one has been blunter about the damage that may cause than First Nations leaders.

But Indigenous people know well what happens when a government comes along and declares its own sovereignty — while taking away the sovereignty of others. So it comes as no surprise that the first court challenge to Premier Danielle Smith’s Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act has been launched by a First Nation, the Onion Lake Cree Nation

Even before Smith introduced the legislation on Nov. 22, dozens of chiefs representing Treaties 6, 7 and 8 gathered at a news conference to condemn it: “It is nothing but a dangerous and damaging plan to undermine democracy and abandon the rule of law,” said Chief Darcy Dixon of the Bearspaw Nation just west of Calgary. 

Smith had been touting her sovereignty agenda for months as she sought the United Conservative Party of Alberta leadership. Yet even after she was elected leader she didn’t consult with any First Nation in Alberta. When this was pointed out to her by Indigenous leaders, she hastily invited them to meet with her. 

The day before the scheduled meeting, however, Smith shamelessly compared the treatment of Alberta by the federal government to Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people under the oppressive Indian Act.

Indigenous people were outraged.

The meeting went ahead, but immediately after Treaty 6 leaders who represent a swath of First Nations in central Alberta released a blistering response: “It was clear from our discussions that Premier Smith does not understand Treaty or our inherent rights nor does she respect them.”

They mocked the invitation that was extended on the day of the throne speech as meaningless, when such a “dangerous” piece of legislation was under discussion.

In Saskatchewan, meanwhile, the Saskatchewan First Act passed its second reading last month. It’s a milder version of Alberta’s sovereignty act, but designed nonetheless to protect the province from “intrusive federal policies.” The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) gathered chiefs from all over the province in mid-December to flag the government’s “continual infringement on First Nations inherent and treaty rights.”

“We have mandates from the chiefs in assembly to move forward legally (and) politically,” said FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron. “And we’re about to the point where we’re going to start blockading.”

First Nations leaders say Indigenous rights and the numbered treaties — most of which predate the creation of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan by decades — supersede any provincial law. That principle has been upheld in numerous court rulings. 

Indigenous leaders also maintain that since Indigenous groups signed the treaties with the federal government on behalf of Queen Victoria, their primary relationship is with the federal government. They fear provincial governments will impinge on that relationship to the point that First Nations will lose the rights entrenched in the treaties.

It’s not that the federal government has always been honest with and supportive of First Nations. Land grabs, residential schools, and cruel and repressive restrictions on reserves can all be laid at the feet of various federal governments. 


POLITICSOPINION: Danielle Smith stumbled into a fight with Treaty chiefs. Then, she made it worse Dec. 15, 2022

CONTRIBUTORS OPINION: Alberta’s sovereignty act is a seditious and sobering threat to Canadian democracy Dec. 04, 2022

POLITICS OPINION: Her Sovereignty Act passed, Danielle Smith’s trap for Trudeau, Notley and the rest of Canada is set Dec. 11, 2022

But First Nations that made treaty with the federal government of the time at least have a record of a binding formal agreement that establishes obligations between the two parties.

The First Nations in Alberta and Saskatchewan have no such binding agreement with the provincial governments. And that’s why they fear leaving their sovereignty, land and natural resources at the mercy of separatist premiers.

It’s somewhat ironic that the Onion Lake Cree Nation is the first entity to launch a court challenge to Alberta’s sovereignty act. It straddles the Alberta/Saskatchewan border and was once dubbed by the federal government as a group of “rebel Indians” because of their participation in the North-West Resistance of 1885.

They are still fighting for their rights, and in many ways now speak for the numerous Albertans who also don’t want to live in a separatist state.