Some have wondered why it hasn’t happened a lot sooner, considering the precedent that was set in Saskatchewan a number of years ago. I refer to the land-claim initiative that is being pursued by members of the Pikani (Piegan) First Nation reserve located in the Foothills area of southwestern Alberta.
In a nutshell, the land-claim document states that Treaty 7, which governs the southern Alberta First Nations, is fraudulent and that all traditional Pikani territory will be reoccupied. It orders all non-Pikani people and enterprises to vacate all Crown land within not only their own territory, but all Blackfoot Territory.
It also demands that all infrastructure be kept in place, and that any cattle found on their land will be seized. Clearly, this has caused some consternation in the local ranching community, especially amongst those that have livestock on grazing leases that are affected by the claim.
Local ranchers immediately smelled a rat when they heard of the claim, noting that this was just a blatant threat to extort money by the individuals behind the claim.
The Saskatchewan Treaty Land Entitlement Act was brought up as being the source of the problem. That legislation recognized that the original Indian treaties were inadequate and compensated Saskatchewan First Nations to the tune of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
From the documents that have been circulated, including a resolution from the Pikani Band Council, it’s hard to determine the extent of official support for this claim. But then it’s hard to believe that the claim would not have universal support from the members of the Pikani First Nation, considering the unstated goal is compensation — that’s just human nature.
The Saskatchewan precedent provided for financial compensation that had to be used to buy former native territory from existing landowners and leaseholders. Much of that land was then leased back to local farmers.
Notwithstanding the fuzzy source and unclear support for the land claim — it’s a clever move to force a discussion on the situation and see what the political/government response will be.
The response from the ranching community was entirely predictable — they are outraged at this blatant exercise to undermine their livelihood by threatening to take away their grazing rights on Crown land. Considering many of the grazing leases are more than 120 years old, that would be understandable.
But there’s more to the story, of course — what has become suspect is the timing of the land claim. Unlike their ancestors who signed the original treaties, today’s First Nations’ leadership is quite politically sophisticated and has developed keen insight and experience on how to successfully pursue their interests and issues with governments.
What I expect the claimants calculated with this move was that with the election of Premier Alison Redford, they just might have a more sympathetic ear for their claim at the provincial level. Our premier spent a number of years working as a human-rights lawyer in South Africa. Add to that her suspected more liberal leanings on social issues in general, and it’s a recipe that the authors of the claim might feel will get the issue on the negotiating table.
The Saskatchewan land agreement occurred under a previous NDP government — need I say more.
There is another twist to this issue that would add some mischief to any anxiety on the part of grazing leaseholders. Rural southern Alberta voted Wildrose in the last election, and ranchers were the hardcore of that support.
One can’t help but expect the ruling PC government not to keep that political reality in mind as they begin to digest this issue. For them, it would be a tough chew to consider using millions of taxpayer dollars to resolve the land-claim issue as per the Saskatchewan precedent for a small group of cattle barons who are ardent supporters of the opposition Wildrose party.
I might be cynical, but I believe once this issue moves into political arena at the provincial cabinet level, the socially progressive PCs, though wanting to address the claim in favour of the First Nations, will want to see the affected ranching community pay dearly for it, one way or another.
All is fair in politics, so they say. Stay tuned.
Will Verboven is the editor of Alberta Farmer.