Beaver Lake Cree challenge government in massive court case
Lawyer says it's the right to traditional lands vs. unchecked oil development
Tuesday, Feb 07, 2012 02:45 pm
The Beaver Lake Cree Nation moved one step closer to having their civil lawsuit against the governments of Alberta and Canada heard in court – a case their lawyer said could set an “enormous” precedent.
The BLCN initially challenged the government on May 14, 2008 over nearly 15,000 approved or proposed industrial developments in their traditional lands, near Lac La Biche. Members say the scope of that development violates their constitutional treat rights to hunt, fish, and trap in their territory.
Members of BLCN and their legal representatives were at the Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton for a pre-trial hearing. Now that both the BLCN and the Alberta government have made their initial cases, it’s up to the judge, Justice Beverly A. Browne, to decide whether or not the case will proceed to trial.
The BLCN’s representation in the case, Vancouver-based Aboriginal-rights lawyer Jack Woodward, said the government has delayed the case for years because of the significance to Alberta’s oil and gas development.
“The case could set an enormous precedent,” Woodward said. “It has a huge importance across Canada – basically, it could affect anywhere there is a tree.”
He said the case is the first time the boundaries could be set between First Nations treaty rights and the government’s ability to use land for natural resource development. In question is the Treaty 6 agreement of 1876, which states that First Nations would be able to continue their practice of hunting, trapping, and fishing on their traditional lands, and that the Crown could take land for government use.
Should the case go to trial and the BLCN be successful, it could mean slowing the rate Alberta’s oil and gas expansion plans – which the government is predicting to more than double from 2008 levels to three million barrels produced daily by 2018.
“There must be a limit on industrial development to protect animals and treaty rights,” Woodward said. “And this case would determine where those limits would be.”
And the local First Nations has international support – UK-based bank The Co-operative has contributed time and energy to support the BLCN’s cause as part of their ‘Stop Toxic Fuels Expansion Now’ campaign. And on Jan. 30, the first day of the pre-trial, members of People & Planet – a European environmental group that visited Lac La Biche and BLCN last summer – gathered outside of Canadian consulates in London, England, and Edinburgh, Scotland as a show of support for the Beaver Lake Cree’s court case.
“The Beaver Lake Cree Nation’s case happens to correspond with the worldwide environmental movement,” Woodward said. “The BLCN would like to put limits on industrial development to protect their treaty rights, while the international environmental movement would like those same limits to protect the land and water, and to stop global warming.”
Henry Gladue, chief of the BLCN, said the amount of land being used without proper consultation with local First Nations is directly affected their way of life.
“Now, when we look out the back door, we just see roads all over,” Gladue said. “We’re losing access to our traditional territories. We’re looking at making Alberta and Canada uphold our treaty rights, to make sure our future generations will be able to hunt, fish, and trap – that’s very important.”
Josh Stewart, a spokesperson for Alberta Justice, declined to comment on any specifics on the case, but did say the government’s position would be explained if and when there is a trial.
“Alberta will be vigorously defending the claim and will explain its position on Aboriginal consultation and treaty rights in court,” Stewart said.
For their parts, both Woodward and Gladue said they are confident the case will make it to trial.
“This is been ongoing for years,” Gladue said. “We’re just trying to be heard – now it’s up to the judge.”
Woodward said he expects Justice Browne to make a decision on whether or not the case will proceed to trial within the next two months.