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Sovereignty Matters

The controversial and divisive Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, Bill 1, was passed by the Government of Alberta’s legislature after the provision that granted Danielle Smith’s cabinet the power to bypass the legislature and rewrite laws as it saw fit was removed.  

Bill 1 in Alberta and the similar Bill 88 in Saskatchewan are cause for reflection on key issues. As the global environmental crisis deepens, unprecedented change is unfolding in lands and waters around the world.  Isn’t it time we started to think differently about our relationships with each other and with the lands beneath our feet?

Section 35 (1) of the Constitution states: The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed. 

There are 370 million Indigenous peoples around the world, occupying 20% of the earth’s lands, and they represent 5% of the human family. On average in Alberta and Saskatchewan, there are more Indigenous people who represent ~9% of the population.  

On April 22, 2022, the International Institute for Sustainable Development published a policy brief titled “Indigenous Peoples: Defending an Environment for All”. The report states: 

“Lands inhabited by Indigenous Peoples contain 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge and knowledge systems are key to designing a sustainable future for all. International environmental negotiations need to go beyond the tokenistic participation of Indigenous Peoples to a genuine integration of their worldviews and knowledge. Respecting and promoting their collective rights to their lands, self-determination, and consent is vital to strengthening their role as custodians of nature and agents of change.” 

Indigenous knowledge carries a unique perspective from that of Western knowledge. There is an urgent need for collective acknowledgment that the knowledge used to guide our way forward can no longer be exclusively determined by Western science and settler leadership. Indigenous peoples have significant expertise to contribute to the growing global crises of climate and biodiversity, and this contribution must be recognized and welcomed. 

This brings us back to the land question. When First Nations negotiated the eleven numbered treaties of Canada, they negotiated in good faith land-sharing arrangements – not cede, release, or surrender agreements. And the only use settlers were to have had was access to the land to the depth of a plow blade or a man’s hand span.  That is what the oral treaty arrangements were and still are. The First Nations negotiators specifically asked to be taught Western knowledge as they recognized that changes were coming and that they would need it to adapt to the coming changes. It was understood that when combined, both Western and Indigenous knowledge make each other stronger. 

Peace and respect were foundational to the land-sharing arrangements. Indigenous peoples did not give up their duty to the land and Indigenous sovereignty was acknowledged through the negotiation process itself. Indigenous sovereignty existed then and continues to this day. It is the Indigenous rights holders that have the only true claim to sovereignty within the territories in question. 

Alberta is home to some of the largest extraction companies in the world that profit from the extraction of natural resources that are causing widespread, irreversible damage to lands, waters, and the land’s biodiversity. These oil and gas projects are also the source of the largest amounts of greenhouse emissions in Canada and among G7 Nations—and impact the lives and livelihoods of Indigenous peoples. 

In her announcement last week, Premier Smith stated that the government of Alberta will do what’s in the best interests of Albertans. Even before becoming law, it was creating widespread division within Alberta and across Canada. 

Does this Act truly reflect the voices of Albertans?  Through the actions taken by the Government of Saskatchewan and the Government of Alberta, what we are witnessing is the undemocratic enforcement of political agendas on all within their boundaries. Who is going to benefit from this? Let’s be honest. Industry

Let’s call it like it is. Colonial states who occupy traditional Indigenous territories covered by treaties with Indigenous peoples are fighting over the land — again.  

Indigenous leaders and grassroots activists are responding. They are angry and rightfully so. They should be. These legislative bills seriously impact Indigenous peoples’ duties, rights, and livelihood. 

At a recent news conference the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, and the G4 in Treaty 7 Territory immediately responded. National Chief RoseAnne Archibald stated: “We’re not asking for amendments to these acts. We are actually asking that the Saskatchewan first and the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, be withdrawn.” She continued to say that the two bills—Bill 1 in Alberta and Bill 88 in Saskatchewan—are an infringement on treaty rights of the Indigenous Nations in those provinces and that AFN will not stand idly by (and) will not allow it to happen.” 

First Nation chiefs from Saskatchewan met in Saskatoon on December 9th to discuss the Saskatchewan First Act and in the end warned of future direct actions, including blockades, if the Act is not repealed. Moosomin First Nation Chief Cheryl Kahpeaysewat noted that the resources the province is trying to assert jurisdiction over “are for our unborn children… Our ancestors did not sign away resources.”  

“Nothing in the Saskatchewan First [Act] acknowledges our treaties.” 

Both bills are precedent-setting, obstruct Canada’s ability to meet its climate targets, and violate negotiated terms, both oral and written of the numbered treaties within their boundaries. Both provinces’ bills violated the obligation for free, prior, and informed consent and impose a destructive, capitalist agenda that obstructs Indigenous peoples’ sacred duty to effectively steward the lands they belong to. They violate the treaty rights and duties of all treaty peoples – . Rights that are recognized and affirmed by Canada’s very -Constitution. 

What we are witnessing today is symptomatic of what is wrong with the relationship between Indigenous Nations and the state. The claims of sovereignty by both provincial governments, send a clear message that Indigenous voices are not going to be heard, let alone respected or considered. 

Colonialism is not a thing of the past, but is a contemporary and continued act of oppression against Indigenous peoples.  

The path we have been on has had a specific agenda driven by a utopian mythology of endless growth and wealth. If left unchecked, lands and waters will continue to be destroyed, the threats of water and food insecurity will continue to rise, divisions among all Canadians will grow, and basic human rights violations will increase as our democratic processes continue to be eroded. Is this who the settler peoples of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and across Canada are? What is the legacy we want to leave to our children? What are we leaving to our children? 

It is time for the colonial state to embrace the significance of Indigenous knowledge. Change is here, and we are looking at a future bleaker than the annihilation of the buffalo herds. There must be a political commitment by provincial and federal orders of government that is led not by partisan agendas, but by a vision of a better, more just world guided by the voices of the people. Let us embark on a new path that gets us all off this path of destruction. One that provides hope and gifts our children a great legacy. 

Wendy Lynn Lerat
Wendy Lynn Lerat

Wendy Lynn Lerat is the Prairies Regional Organizer for the Council of Canadians, lives in Treaty 4 territory, and is of Anihsinape and Nehiyaw descent. She is a teacher who understands the critical need to create awareness of the significant link between Indigenous justice, environmental justice, and truth-telling of our collective history in achieving social justice and reconciliation.

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