Onion Lake Cree Nation sues Alberta over sovereignty act, alleging harmful intent

A First Nation is challenging the sovereignty act in court for fear it gives the provincial government new powers encroaching on its treaty rights.

Filed on Monday, the lawsuit challenges the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act for being “contrary to the spirit and intent” of Treaty 6 and presenting a danger to Indigenous rights, specifically their ability to pursue traditional ceremonies, hunting, fishing, trapping, and natural resource control.

Chief Henry Lewis explained how the Peoples of Onion Lake Cree Nation are successors to their ancestors that signed Treaty 6 in 1876 at Fort Pitt — 29 years before Alberta became a province.

“We are still here as treaty people,” Lewis said. “We want to send a message to the premier and the Alberta government that these lands are treaty lands and this law directly infringes upon our Treaty Number 6.”

“Those treaties, they made a promise,” added Bernadine Harper, an elected band councillor.

Last week, the sovereignty act, Premier Danielle Smith’s signature legislation, was given royal assent by Lt. Gov. Salma Lakhani. The premier had long promised to create it as a way to confront Ottawa for overreaching into areas of provincial responsibility.

The Onion Lake Cree Nation is a First Nations band straddling the provincial borders between Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Lewis said the nation reached out to the premier’s office to communicate their concerns with the sovereignty act and desire to have a meeting. He says those requests were unanswered.

“We remind Premier Smith that no province has the authority to unilaterally change our treaty relationship, which Bill 1 is attempting to do by ignoring our sovereign jurisdiction and treaty relationship,” the Onion Lake Cree Nation chief added.

“As nations, we are deeply concerned that the state of Canada has left such an unconstitutional bill to move forward unchecked.”

Legal counsel Michael Marchen said another concern is the way the sovereignty act became law with a lack of consultation with First Nations in the province, a violation of treaty expectations and constitutional duties to consult.

“This lack of consultation in respect to a law that very clearly affects Onion Lake Cree Nation, as well as other treaty nations, rights is a problem and is something that ought to be ruled unconstitutional,” Marchen added, with Hladun & Company.

The lawsuit is seeking a declaration the sovereignty act infringes upon treaty rights, litigation costs and either a temporary or permanent injunction guaranteeing the act cannot be used against the Onion Lake Cree Nation.

The Premier’s Office said it does not comment on ongoing litigation, in a statement to CTV News Edmonton.

“The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act is constitutional and does not interfere or undermine Indigenous and treaty rights,” the statement added.

As the defendant, the province has 20 days to respond to the statement of claim. None of the claims have been tested or proven in court.

After being in force for only four days, the Opposition says the sovereignty act has done nothing but create chaos.

“Onion Lake Cree First Nation warned Smith in writing that her bill violated Treaty rights,” said Irfan Sabir, NDP justice critic. “Numerous Indigenous leaders have made the same point in recent days, and the Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution calling for the bill to be withdrawn. Danielle Smith and the UCP ignored them all.”

“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. It’s an avoidable setback for reconciliation and a blow to economic certainty.”

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