Two Alberta First Nations to take federal government to court over budget bills

OTTAWA – Two First Nations from Alberta are taking the federal government to court, claiming they weren’t consulted about Conservative omnibus budget legislation that makes significant changes to environmental protection and assessment.

The Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Frog Lake First Nation launched their legal challenge Tuesday at the Federal Court in Ottawa.

“The rest of Canada should be with us in support, and send a message to Stephen Harper and his government that what they’re doing is wrong,” said Chief Steve Courtoreille of the Mikisew Cree First Nation.

“They can’t ram bills down our throats and expect us to roll over and accept it, because this is going to affect our future, affect the future of all of Canada.”

It is the federal government’s job, under its treaty obligations, to protect aboriginal land, but the two controversial budget bills suggest Ottawa doesn’t intend to live up to that responsibility, Courtoreille said.

He said off-loading environmental oversight to provincial governments will not allow concerns from First Nations communities to be adequately addressed.

The two First Nations are asking the Federal Court for a judicial review of parts of Bill C-38 and Bill C-45, focusing particularly on changes to the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

“Our goals are clear: we are asking the courts to confirm that what the government did was not legal,” Courtoreille said.

“Over the years, the courts have made it clear that all levels of government must consult with First Nations when they’re making plans or decisions that could potentially affect our treaty rights.”

A spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan directed questions to the departments of Transport and Fisheries. Spokespeople for those ministers were not immediately available to comment.

“When the bills were passed, when they were rammed through the house, we realized we had to act now and put Canada on notice,” Courtoreille said before Tuesday’s news conference.

“There’s no future if this legislation is enforced. It pretty much strips us of our treaty rights, then we’ll have empty treaties that the government will no longer have to worry about.”

The controversial legislation, which was passed by the House of Commons late last year, builds on what Courtoreille called a historical trend.

“The federal and provincial governments have always seemed to want to get us out of the way to continue their development without any interruption,” he said.

“We feel this is one of the ways they’re trying to get us out of the way so they don’t have to deal with us.”

The legal challenge comes as the grassroots Idle No More movement protests the Harper government’s omnibus budget bill. Demonstrators say the legislation threatens their treaty rights as set out in the Constitution.

Those protests, ranging from temporary rail blockades and border closures to shopping-mall flash mobs, have drawn inspiration from Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence, who has been living on a liquid diet in order to secure a meeting between the Crown and First Nations leaders.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced last week that he would meet with First Nations leaders on Friday.

While Courtoreille said his community’s legal challenge is separate from the Idle No More movement, he urged all Canadians to scrutinize the government’s budget legislation.

“This is not just a First Nation issue, it is an issue for all of Canada,” he said Monday. “It’s not right what they’re doing to this country. It’s going to destroy this country if we allow them.”

The Mikisew Cree First Nation is a fly-in community headquartered in Fort Chipewyan on the shores of Lake Athabasca. It is linked by winter road to Fort McMurray for approximately three months a year.

It has more than 2,700 members, with approximately 700 living in Fort Chipewyan.

The Mikisew Cree First Nation owns and operates a number of companies in Fort McMurray, Edmonton and Toronto, including hotels and oil and gas servicing companies.

The Frog Lake First Nation is about a two and half hours drive east of Edmonton and has its own oil and gas drilling facilities.

It has 2,454 band members, with 1,000 of them living on reserve.