By Andrea Hill, Postmedia News
As management of five federally run Saskatchewan pastures is transferred to the province next month, some aboriginal groups who use and have lived on the land say they’re worried about the fate of historic First Nations sites and their ability to purchase the land in the future.
“The consultation was zero to nil,” said former Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations chief Roland Crowe of the land transfer.
Sixty-two fields in Saskatchewan, encompassing close to two million acres, are being transferred to provincial management after being operated and financed by the federal government for more than 70 years under the Community Pastures Program – a prairie rehabilitation program set up in the 1930s to restore land eroded by years of drought.
Management of five fields in Saskatchewan was transferred to the province in December and a further five fields will be transferred in March. By 2018, all fields will be managed by the province. A smaller number of fields is also being transferred in Alberta and Manitoba.
Fields being managed by the Saskatchewan government will be sold or rented to groups of ranchers who previously paid to graze their cattle on the land under the supervision of federally paid field managers responsible for field conservation.
Tomasin Playford, executive director of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, said she worries the loss of federal protection will compromise historical sites and artifacts that document how First Nations groups lived.
“It’s their unrecorded history,” she said, pointing out that the protected grasslands contain First Nation burial sites, teepee rings and buffalo jumps, among other historic items.
“The way the pastures were managed in the past had potentially less impact than there may be in the future because we don’t know what the future holds,” Playford said. She added that because the fields haven’t been cultivated, there’s “high potential for undiscovered or unknown archaeological sites” and that these could be lost if land leasers or buyers aren’t mindful of conservation.
“You can reclaim native vegetation, you can work at reintroducing species at risk, but you cannot replace an archaeological site once it’s been destroyed; it’s gone forever,” she said.
Crowe said that while he believes “the ranchers of today and yesterday were extremely respectful” of First Nations burial sites, he worries that new land owners or users “won’t give a damn” about them.
He also said leasing and selling Community Pasture Program land to ranchers limits what Saskatchewan First Nations can purchase under the Treaty Land Entitlement agreement. First Nations who did not get all the land they were promised by historical treaties signed with the Crown can buy federal, provincial or private land from willing sellers.
“First Nations are concerned with the fact that your ministry failed to include them in this program by not allowing them the opportunity to acquire these lands for their land settlement agreements,” Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Vice-Chief Bobby Cameron wrote to Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz in 2012. According to the federation, Ritz replied to say treaty land entitlements would be considered.
James Watson, spokesperson for Agriculture Canada, said the federal government is “honouring its consultation obligations to Aboriginal groups” and that the provinces, who own the overwhelming majority of the land, are responsible for what happens to the land in the future.
“As part of its obligations, however, Canada has informed Aboriginal groups of the return of these pasture lands to the provinces. Entitlement bands and other Aboriginal groups may contact the provinces to inquire further about plans for their future use,” he said.