A routine compliance check has sparked outcry from First Nations leaders, after conservation officers ventured onto the lands of the Lucky Man First Nation without seeking permission.
On Tuesday, two provincial conservation officers were following tracks through freshly fallen snow. The tracks led across Lucky Man territory, about 20 kilometres north of Hafford northwest of Saskatoon, and through a neighbouring wildlife conservation area. The officers decided to check on some American hunters and an outfitter, to ensure they were staying within the area where they were authorized to hunt.
That took them a few hundred metres onto Lucky Man land. For the band’s chief, Crystal Okemow, that was “trespassing.” She said the officers made no effort to contact the band leadership, and even damaged property.
“For them to drive onto Lucky Man, to ruin hunting trails and bush blinds, that’s vandalism,” she said.
Okemow’s concerns quickly worked their way up to the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations leadership. Vice-chief Heather Bear, who holds the FSIN lands and resources portfolio, said the incident shows “disrespect” for treaty rights. Citing an agreement with the provincial government instructing officers to seek consent, she said First Nations were “outright lied to.”
“That was an agreement and it was breached by the province,” Bear said.
But Ken Aube, the Ministry of Environment’s chief of enforcement, said officers were just following policy. In some cases, he said, waiting for permission could undercut the whole point of an investigation. The agreement Bear mentioned provides exceptions for those situations, as well as cases where officers can’t reach the band’s contact person.
“Conservation officers are authorized and guided by case law and policy that supports entry onto First Nations land to conduct their duties,” Aube said. “First Nations lands aren’t enclaves and federal and provincial law still apply.”
That interpretation doesn’t sit well with Okemow, who claims Lucky Man’s chief and council have “total jurisdiction over their nation.”
“We’re a sovereign nation within a nation,” she said. “And that has to be acknowledged, respected and recognized.”
She said similar encroachments have occurred on nearby First Nations, including Onion Lake. For Okemow, Tuesday’s incident isn’t an isolated case, but part of “systemic” violations of band rights.
“It’s a lack of education on the officers part about treaty and jurisdiction, and basic request and courtesy,” the chief said.
Okemow said the First Nation will consider its next steps during its council meeting on Saturday. That could include legal action, she speculated.
Bear said the officers involved should be “charged with trespassing.”
But Aube said that he has no basis for reprimanding the officers.
“From the information I have at this point, the protocol was followed,” he said. “The information I have is that it was a respectful check.”
Aube also noted officers work to notify band leadership as soon as possible when they can’t get prior consent. He stressed that the ministry is committed to working with First Nations to improve communication and has “great relationships” with most bands.
Bear said she doesn’t buy Aube’s account of why the officers didn’t immediately seek permission, which she called “pretty weak.”
“I’m not convinced at all. Band councillors all carry cellphones for crying out loud,” she said. “I smell harassment and I smell marginalization, and I think it’s time we fire back before it gets out of hand.”
She worries that similar confrontations could escalate in the future. So does Okemow, who said band members might get heated if they feel their rights are getting violated.
“This is our home, and when people come barging into your home people can get emotional,” she said.