REGINA - The Saskatchewan First Act, the government’s signature legislation to protect its jurisdictional authority over natural resources from federal intrusion, has passed final reading in the legislative assembly.
Third reading of Bill 88 - The Saskatchewan First Act passed Thursday with support from the Sask Party MLAs as well as from Nadine Wilson of the Sask. United Party.
All 11 NDP MLAs in the assembly that day voted against. In a show of unity, Indigenous and Métis guests in the gallery also stood as the NDP cast their no votes.
First Nations and Métis leaders filled the gallery on Thursday morning for the final vote on the Saskatchewan First Act. They have been vocal against Bill 88 from the start, with the Opposition critical of the government for a failure to consult with Indigenous peoples prior to the introduction of the Act. Indigenous leaders have also raised the prospect of staging blockades and of filing legal challenges.
The Saskatchewan government has maintained that First Nations’ Treaty rights were not going to be impacted, but approved a further tweak to the bill during the committee process to reaffirm that point.
At the Standing Committee on Intergovernmental Affairs and Justice Wednesday, the Sask Party accepted an amendment to Bill-88 from Athabasca MLA Jim Lemaigre, which stated that nothing in the Act abrogates or derogates from the original treaty rights of Aboriginal peoples under section 35 of the Constitution Act.
There was “not a question, not a question of protecting the treaty rights that are in our Constitution,” said Premier Scott Moe to reporters afterwards.
“That was reaffirmed by a great representation, I would say, from the member from Athabasca Jim Lemaigre, who had brought forward an amendment to affirm, further clarify, that protection in Bill 88. This is very, very indicative to the ongoing conversation that has to happen around Bill 88, protecting our ability to provide that growth here in the province, to take that natural resource wealth that we can acquire in Saskatchewan at the family household level, at the community level, at the provincial level and reinvest that back into services that ensures that that growth ultimately does work for everyone.”
Moe said he was committed to ongoing dialogue, “committed to working through what Bill 88 is, what Bill 88 isn’t, if there are some tweaks and changes we need to do as we move forward with this bill. We’re committed to having that dialogue. I’m looking at doing those. At the end of the day this is a bill that is there to prevent a federal intrusion into provincial jurisdiction, which is in all people’s best interest in this province.”
While there was plenty of talk of “dialogue” from the government, Michelle LeClair, vice president of Métis Nation - Saskatchewan, said otherwise.
“We haven’t had any dialogue or discussions with the provincial government,” LeClair said. “We had a legislative assembly in November 2022. Our assembly was clear and unanimous on rejecting the Sask First Act, because it infringes upon our section 35 rights.”
LeClair said there was “very little, if any, attempt to have consultation with us, and consultation by the way, has to start early. It has to start before a bill is introduced. This bill potentially could create such an impact on our rights that our hunting, our gathering, our ceremonies, all of those things will be greatly diminished and disrespected… this is our government, whether we like them or not, this is our government being disingenuous about any type of discussion.”
She wanted to see the Sask. government “fulfill their obligations with respect to duty to consult. This is frightening for us, because the province of Saskatchewan has a tendency not to consult with us, or make it easy for proponents to come into our territory, and to not consult with us.
“Now if they have exclusive jurisdiction over land and resources and they’re not consulting with us at all to this point, how do you expect that it’s going to get any better when they’re going to have exclusive, jurisdiction and what does that mean? I think at the end of the day what will happen is with respect to the infringement of our rights it will likely end up in court, and we’ll see how constitutional it is.”
In meeting reporters Opposition critic Betty Nippi-Albright stood along with First Nations representatives and leaders from reserves including Moosomin and Onion Lake. Nippi-Albright told reporters treaty and inherent rights are being disrespected by the government.
“The lack of meaningful duty to consult has always happened in this province. First Nations and Métis people have never been consulted when legislation and policies have been created. This bill has been an example of what’s to come, and how it’s going to impact First Nation and Metis peoples in this province. Treaty rights, inherent rights, are not going to be protected… They have not taken the cotton batting out of their ears and put it in their mouth and actually listened to the people of this province.”
As for Lemaigre’s amendment affirming treaty rights under s.35, Nippi-Albright characterized it as a “cut and paste” from her own Bill 610.
“Because there’s been a public outcry, they threw in this clause to keep people quiet. First Nations, an afterthought — and First Nations and Metis people are done being an afterthought."
Another sore point for the First Nation and Métis opponents of the bill was that a motion in committee from the NDP’s Nicole Sarauer which would have seen Indigenous and Métis witnesses bring testimony to the standing committee was voted down by the Sask. Party majority.
Opposition Leader Carla Beck said a “powerful message” was sent by the First Nations and Métis who were in the gallery that morning.
“They were here to tell us today that Indigenous people, First Nations leaders, Metis leaders must be consulted, their voices must be heard in this building and when decisions about them are being made.”
Opposition Justice critic Sarauer was also sceptical of what the Saskatchewan First Act would actually do.
“The minister and her officials were clear last night. The bill adds no new powers to Saskatchewan’s arsenal. The minister’s officials were clear that the bill is simply a statement. There is no legal weight, being attached to legislative statements, they have no precedent for saying that it has any legal weight, which they weren’t able to say last night that it would. So our concern is that this has been sold to the wider public that it’s something much more substantial, as a silver bullet to stop intrusion.”