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Dakota Tipi First Nation sues federal government for $475M, alleges Manitoba air base built on unceded land

November 8, 2023

Loss of land caused economic, cultural, mental and physical suffering, Dakota Tipi lawsuit says

A birds eye view of a strip of land with buildings is pictured.
The Southport Aerospace Centre in south-central Manitoba is shown in a photo from Southport’s website. A lawsuit filed by Dakota Tipi First Nation against the federal government says this land, where a military base was established in 1940, is unceded territory. (Ron Garnett/AirScapes via Southport Aerospace Centre)

CBC Indigenous: Dakota Tipi First Nation has launched a $475-million lawsuit against the federal government, alleging a former military base turned aerospace centre in south-central Manitoba exists on part of the First Nation’s ancestral land that was never surrendered to the Crown.

The First Nation, southwest of Portage la Prairie, Man., claims Canada breached its constitutional and fiduciary obligations after seizing the land that is now home to the aerospace centre Southport — also located just outside Portage la Prairie — without proper consultation.

The land in question, which includes the historic Old Sioux Village, is considered ancestral territory of the Dakota and was used exclusively by the nation “since time immemorial,” according to the statement of claim filed at the Manitoba Court of King’s Bench on Nov. 6, which names the Attorney General of Canada as defendant.

Oral and written history prove that the village and surrounding areas had hundreds of teepees and harvesting grounds, along with ceremonial, burial and trade sites, the statement of claim says.

The allegations have not been tested in court and a statement of defence has not been submitted.

Never ceded rights to land: suit

The land in question became home to a Canadian Forces pilot training base from about 1940 to 1992, when it was transferred to the newly created not-for-profit Southport Aerospace Centre Inc. to manage the former base’s assets.

The site is now a commercial-industrial centre, which includes an airport and aviation training facilities, along with manufacturing, educational institutions and residential housing, according to Southport’s website.

In the suit, Dakota Tipi claims it holds rights and title to that land as per section 35 of Canada’s Constitution — the section which guarantees Aboriginal and treaty rights. “The Dakota people are an essential part of the formation and fabric of the country of Canada” who “helped defend, build and develop the country,” including helping fight against the Americans in the War of 1812, the suit says.

However, following that the Dakota were incorrectly identified as “American Indians” and “strategically excluded” from Canada’s treaty-making process, the suit says.  They “had to endure the hardship of development on their unceded territory,” but “did not relinquish any of their rights or title,” the statement of claim reads.

The suit also says the federal government “has agreed to issue a statement of recognition and apology to the Dakota and Lakota people of Canada in or about November 2023.”

However, in 2007, Ottawa penned a letter to nine Dakota and/or Lakota First Nations in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, rejecting their claim that they had constitutional title to lands there.

In the lawsuit, Dakota Tipi says Canada failed to consult with the First Nation during the development of the military base, and again during the transfer to the aerospace centre.

The government has granted, and continues to grant, permission for pilot training, land development and property management in Southport, resulting in millions of dollars of transactions, the suit says.

The development of the land forced many Dakota Tipi First Nation members to observe ceremonial and other traditional practices elsewhere, and left the First Nation struggling to find proper land for harvesting and housing, according to the statement of claim.

Suit calls for land to be transferred to Dakota Tipi

The federal government’s actions caused economic, cultural, mental and physical suffering to Dakota Tipi First Nation, the suit alleges. It calls for an order transferring the land back to Dakota Tipi First Nation, and for benefits gained from the area to be repaid to the nation.

It calls “in addition, or in the alternative,” for general damages of $475 million for the infringement of Dakota Tipi’s land rights, as well as aggravated, punitive and special damages that resulted from the loss of land use.

The lawsuit also calls for a court order prohibiting the federal government from granting future permissions for land and resource use in Southport without its consent, and for “meaningful engagement” with Dakota Tipi in accelerated land settlement discussions and adequate consultation with Canada in the future.

CBC News reached out to the Attorney General of Canada’s office and Dakota Tipi First Nation for comment but did not hear back prior to publication.

With files from Özten Shebahkeget