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Treaties and Land Claims

Onion Lake Cree Nation files lawsuit challenging Alberta’s sovereignty act

December 19, 2022
The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act is Premier Danielle Smith’s signature piece of legislation. The bill, which took effect last week, gives cabinet power to direct provincial entities to disregard federal laws that are deemed to be unconstitutional or harmful to Albertans. TODD KOROL/REUTERS

The Globe and Mail: A First Nation has filed a lawsuit against the Alberta government claiming Premier Danielle Smith’s Sovereignty Act violates the constitutionally recognized treaty rights of its members as it asks a court to strike it down.

The Onion Lake Cree Nation, which is located on the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary, filed a statement of claim on Monday, naming the provincial government, Lieutenant-Governor Salma Lakhani and Justice Minister Tyler Shandro as defendants.

The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, Ms. Smith’s signature piece of legislation and her first bill since becoming Premier, took effect last week. The law gives cabinet power to direct provincial entities to disregard federal laws that are deemed to be unconstitutional or harmful to Albertans. The legislation has faced intense criticism from political opponents, Indigenous groups and legal experts. Ms. Smith has defended the law, arguing that it will allow the province to push back against federal intrusion.

The First Nation alleges in court documents that the law infringes on its sovereignty and jurisdiction by granting too much authority to cabinet, and that the act breaches existing land rights and the First Nation’s ability to pursue traditional ceremonies, associations and practices, like hunting, fishing and trapping. It also alleges the province breached constitutional and treaty rights by not consulting with Indigenous peoples before it was enacted.

“The Alberta Sovereignty Act is utterly repugnant to the letter and spirit of the Treaty,” reads the statement of claim. The lawsuit alleges the act negates the guarantees in the First Nation’s treaty by “wresting” control away from the federal government and giving it to provincial cabinet.

Rebecca Polak, press secretary to Ms. Smith, declined to comment on unresolved litigation but said in a statement that the act “is constitutional and does not interfere or undermine Indigenous and treaty rights.” Bill 1 states nothing in the act is to be construed as a repeal of or exemption to existing Indigenous and treaty rights.

Onion Lake is among several First Nations that have voiced opposition to the Sovereignty Act, as well as the Saskatchewan First Act, which aims to unilaterally amend the Constitution to assert provincial jurisdiction over resources and set up a tribunal to be used in future court cases. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has said the act will not affect treaty rights and said its purpose is to build the economy for all residents, including Indigenous people.

Last Friday, First Nations leaders in Saskatchewan warned that they will enact protest blockades in the new year if the legislation is not withdrawn, also arguing the act breaches treaty rights and that there was no consultation before its introduction. Onion Lake Chief Henry Lewis, who announced the Alberta lawsuit, said similar legal action will be taken against the Saskatchewan government if it passes in the legislature.

“We have no choice but to use the colonial courts to defend our Treaty rights and sovereign jurisdiction as Alberta has passed this law without any consultation from our nation,” said Mr. Lewis in a statement, adding it is imperative to defend these rights for future generations and to signal that constitutional rights cannot be “ignored, infringed and trampled on.”

The statement of claim states Bill 1 circumvents a section of the Constitution that says the federal government has exclusive authority over First Nations’ lands and another section that recognizes and affirms Indigenous rights. The First Nation is seeking a declaration from Alberta’s superior trial court that the act unjustifiably infringes on treaty rights and is of no force and effect, in addition to injunctions against the act and legal costs.

Irfan Sabir, New Democratic Party critic for justice, said the court challenge is a direct result of the United Conservative Party’s failure to properly consult with First Nations. “It’s an avoidable setback for reconciliation and a blow to economic certainty,” he said in a statement.

With a report from The Canadian Press