Star Phoenix _ Doug Cuthand
Saskatchewan Treaty Land Entitlement stands out as an example of a successful settlement that has worked in favour of the three parties that signed the original agreement.
The federal government gained by settling a long outstanding treaty right and raising the economic growth of First Nations in the province. The province gained by increased economic activity that assisted many farmers reaching retirement age with no family member to pass the farm along to. The First Nations have witnessed an increased standard of living, economic opportunities and the settlement of an important treaty right.
Now the province is placing Crown land on the market with no special consideration for First Nations. It can be argued that the province doesn’t have the legal obligation to grant First Nations special recognition, but it can certainly also be argued that they should recognize the spirit and intent of the TLE agreement.
In 1930 the federal government transferred the natural resources of the three Prairie provinces to provincial jurisdiction. Previously, the federal government had jurisdiction over the natural resources and resource rights were not part of the treaty making negotiations. The land and natural resources were transferred from the Hudson Bay Company to the Crown and then transferred to the provinces. First Nations were left out at every step in the process.
However, the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement included a clause that the provinces would provide land to First Nations that had land entitlement under treaty.
In 1976 the federal and provincial governments agreed to settle outstanding treaty land entitlement, but they placed unoccupied Crown land on the table for selection and no money was available for purchasing land.
The so-called 76 formula was a monumental failure. The land available for selection was mostly former Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) land and community pastures, and the pasture patrons were rightly concerned. First Nations were left selecting marginal land that would have given us little economic development.
Only a few small pieces of land were transferred under this agreement until the TLE Framework agreement was signed in 1992. This agreement had a realistic land purchase policy and both the federal and provincial governments left Crown land available for selection. The agreement was negotiated between the Mulroney and Devine governments with cabinet ministers Bill McKnight and Tom Siddon playing major roles. The signing ceremony took place following the provincial election, so Premier Roy Romanow signed on behalf of the province.
In 2012 the Harper government transferred the federal PFRA pastures to the province and the province began the process of selling them off. The government made pasture patrons the priority for the land sales. It gave them a preferred rate and if they needed money the province would guarantee the loan. It was a sweet deal for the ranchers.
There was no mention of treaty land entitlement or the historic and constitutional obligation to make land available to First Nations. Of course, the same deal given to the ranchers wasn’t provided to First Nations.
While much of the pasture land is considered marginal at best, much is still native prairie and must be preserved. Also, some of the pasture land is contiguous with reserve boundaries and would be a welcome addition to the reserve. Under the TLE framework agreement we have the ability to freeze mineral rights and have them transferred as a part of the reserve. In this manner we have been able to accumulate land with oil and gas or mineral potential. Some of the pasture land has undisposed mineral rights and might have potential. This is an advantage First Nations have over other land buyers.
To be fair, First Nations should have the first right of refusal in the purchase of any provincial or federal Crown land.
Treaty Land Entitlement has become an economic engine for Saskatchewan First Nations. So far, more than a million acres have been transferred to reserve status, and potentially another million could be transferred. Also, we know that location matters and currently there are about 50 urban reserves, with more planned.
Currently Saskatchewan leads the nation in the acquisition of new land and the accompanying economic development. We have also replaced Alberta as the province where First Nations receive the most revenue from oil and gas. The province is benefiting from our progress, and it has to get onside with TLE.