By Jason Warick, The StarPhoenix
The Saskatchewan government should rethink its refusal to share natural resource revenue with aboriginal people, says one of Canada’s top aboriginal constitutional law experts. “It’s in the interest of governments to maintain the status quo, but the intent of the treaties was to share. That includes resource revenue,” said Larry Chartrand, a University of Ottawa professor of aboriginal law. “You can’t conclude anything other than that.”
Last week’s landmark Supreme Court ruling suggests a dramatic shift toward recognizing aboriginal people’s rights, said Chartrand, who is in Saskatoon for the summer teaching at the University of Saskatchewan’s legal studies for native people program.
Chartrand, a native of Meadow Lake, noted the Supreme Court sided forcefully with a British Columbia First Nation, awarding the group title to 1,750 square kilometres of land. The court moves beyond its former rulings saying the Crown has a “duty to consult” First Nations and Metis when development affects them. The Crown must now obtain “consent” in some cases.
Saskatchewan government officials say the ruling will have little effect in this province, and the position on resource revenue will not change.
“This decision won’t have an impact in Saskatchewan,” said Sonia Eggerman of the Ministry of Justice’s aboriginal law branch.
“The resource revenues collected by the Government of Saskatchewan are shared with all residents as they provide important services for all Saskatchewan people, including First Nations,” said Karen Hill, a government executive council spokesperson.
Chartrand and others see the ruling differently. Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) Chief Perry Bellegarde said it strengthens all aboriginal land claims in Canada, but could also “breathe new life” into the issue of resource revenue sharing.
British Columbia, Quebec and Nunavut already share resource revenue with aboriginal people. The Ontario government has signalled its intent to do the same.
Chartrand said the Supreme Court ruling doesn’t directly address resource revenue sharing, “but the trend is to require governments to respect First Nations’ interest in the land.”
Eggerman said the ruling will not apply to Saskatchewan claims because, unlike B.C., First Nations here surrendered their claims to the land in the treaties.
“The numbered treaties did require First Nations to give up aboriginal title for other benefits,” she said, adding that that includes sub-surface and other resource rights.
Bellegarde, Chartrand and others say there is much more to the treaties than the final text signed with an “X” by chiefs in the 1870s.
“First Nations did not have a concept of giving things up. They agreed to live peacefully and share,” Jim Miller, a University of Saskatchewan history professor and Canada research chair in Native-newcomer relations, said in a StarPhoenix interview in 2010.
“I think the sensible thing to do is sit down and negotiate,” Miller said.
Dwight Newman, Canada research chair in Indigenous Rights in the University of Saskatchewan College of Law, said last week that the ruling shows the court “is very much attuned to expanding Indigenous rights.”
Saskatchewan NDP Opposition leader Cam Broten said the provincial government isn’t doing enough for First Nation and Metis people, but Broten wouldn’t say whether he favours resource revenue sharing.
The NDP did advocate resource revenue sharing in the last election campaign but were criticized for the lack of clarity and detail. Broten admitted the party did not present the position properly. He said he’ll study the issue and arrive at a more thoughtful position before the next election.
Chartrand said further court rulings could force the government to change, and it would be in everyone’s interest to sit down and talk before that happens.
Chartrand said younger generations are much more sympathetic to the historic wrongs endured by aboriginal people, and the need for full reconciliation and equality. Revenue sharing would be one major step in that direction, he said.
“Young people’s views on what’s fair will eventually override the views of the current governments,” he said.