Monday, February 8, 2016

Crown lands and the spirit of the treaties

this piece of Crown land has been sold and is slated for development
Christmas Bird Count, late December.

We stop the car beside a piece of Crown land southeast of Regina Beach, a 160 acre parcel that the Saskatchewan government has recently sold. It is pasture land so I step out of the car and over the fence to have a look and see if it is native grass. The withered stalks and seed heads poking through the thin cover of snow look native to me but in winter it can be tough to identify grassland plants so I snip a few samples and carry them home to figure them out. Later, and with the help of a botanist friend, I name them, all natives: Slender wheatgrass, June Grass, Gumweed, Long-fruited anenome, and prairie coneflower.

The pasture is not in perfect condition. There are some non-natives too, but even the best grasslands have a few weeds these days. As we drive on we watch a sharp-tailed grouse perched on the fence. A herd of 14 mule deer move from one aspen bluff to the next through thickets of snowberry and wild rose.

Mule Deer on the property, image courtesy of Ed Rodger

A friend who lives in the area told me a few weeks ago that the quarter section—once leased Crown land and now in private hands—is going to be developed, subdivided, and sold as acreage or resort property. There is another quarter section of Crown land south of it—mostly native grass and bush as well—that was once protected by the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act (WHPA). It has not been sold yet, but may well go private soon because it appears to no longer be protected by WHPA designation.

When the numbered treaties were signed in this part of the world, back in the 1870s, there were roughly sixty million acres of native grassland south of the forest in what we now call Saskatchewan. Those who signed the treaties, agreeing to share the wealth of the prairie with newcomers, were assured that they and their descendents would always be able to hunt and gather medicines and move through the prairie. No one mentioned that the land would soon be plowed, turned upside down and cut up into parcels for the exclusive use of settlers.
Today we estimate we have somewhere near ten million acres[1] of native grassland left in mostly small pieces in various states of health. That means we are down to less than 20% of our natural cover south of the forest. A report soon to be released by the World Wildlife Fund shows that Saskatchewan continues to lose native grasslands and wetlands at an alarming rate—in some areas as much as 13% a year, the worst of any state or province on the northern Great Plains.

A little less than half of our remaining natural prairie land is owned privately. Approximately 5.9 million acres are leased to private ranchers. Land owners and leaseholders of “Crown agricultural lands” have the legal right to deny access to anyone, including indigenous people.
image of warrant courtesy of APN News

Last month, in response to charges that his government is bullying indigenous hunters (news story here; Doug Cuthand’s excellent column on the topic here), our premier made this point in the Globe and Mail and on CBC, saying "Whether you have a treaty card or not, you still need the permission of the landowner to hunt on private property."  

What Premier Wall did not say was that indigenous people south of the forest have very few places off-reserve where they can go to hunt and engage in cultural practices.

In fact, his government is actively making sure that there will be less Crown land when they are done with Saskatchewan. The Sask Party has a stated policy of privatizing Crown lands. Lyle Stewart, the Minister of Agriculture has repeatedly said that the government does not need to own land, which for his ministry is Crown lands south of the forest.

From November 2008 to December 2014, the Sask Party sold a half million acres of land that used to belong to all of us, indigenous and non-indigenous alike.

In 2012, when Stephen Harper cut the federal PFRA pasture system and transferred 1.7 million acres back to Saskatchewan, the Sask Party said they would either sell or lease the Crown land to the cattle producers who graze it. That process shifting these endangered landscapes to private leaseholding management is about half way through the transition, but in effect it removes many of the last and best places for indigenous people to access Crown land.

Then, in spring of 2014 the Saskatchewan government proudly announced that they were ranking the WHPA lands for ecological value and may eventually be selling as much as 1.8 million acres of former WHPA lands.

After that, last fall, Lyle Stewart announced that Saskatchewan Agriculture would begin selling another 600,000 acres of Crown land—this time at a 15% discount. Leaseholders who do not purchase will find their rental rates climb by 15 and then 30% within two years. 

With Crown land now up for discount sale and the community pastures being leased to private grazing businesses, there are fewer and fewer places where indigenous people are free to hunt or gather medicines. As for asking permission, many farmers and ranchers restrict hunting on the land they manage or own and some may be particularly unwilling to grant permission to Metis or First Nations hunters.

There may be enough latitude under the treaties and in our court system’s interpretation of their language for provincial governments to get away with this kind of erosion of indigenous rights to access the land, but Canada has signed international agreements that refer specifically to the rights of indigenous people in this regard.

For example, we signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states clearly in Article 26:

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.
2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired. 3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.

In addition, Target 12 in Canada’s 2020 Biodiversity Goals and Targets state that “customary use by Aboriginal peoples of biological resources is maintained, compatible with their conservation and sustainable use.”

Are these documents and the treaties themselves merely words or do they actually mean we have a responsibility to ensure that indigenous people have access to more than the small scraps of land they own on reserves and gain through treaty land entitlement?  

The spirit under which the treaties were signed would suggest otherwise; that we share, as indigenous and settler peoples, a sacred obligation to conserve public lands so that our descendents will have wild prairie places where we can walk and know the old ways of grass and meadowlark song.

The Saskatchewan Party is not just selling land; it is violating the very spirit of the treaties that make us who we are and form the foundation of our social contract as prairie people.

[1] These estimates and calculations are based on data that appear in the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan’s report, “Saskatchewan’s Native Prairie:  Taking Stock of a Vanishing Ecosystem and Dwindling Resource” available at

another shot of the Crown land near Regina Beach that was sold

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