A $230 fine for cutting firewood has turned into a court battle for a Dene man in the Northwest Territories, but the first appearance in a Yellowknife court turned to confusion as Dene leaders got straight to the heart of their case instead of entering a plea.

Fred Sangris, a former chief of the Yellowknives Dene, says he’s been cutting his own firewood for 40 years without a permit to heat his home in N’Dilo. 

In January of this year, he was shocked when he was issued a $230 fine for illegally harvesting wood near Dettah.

The N.W.T.’s Forest Management Act says everyone must have a permit to harvest wood, but Sangris says that’s a violation of his treaty rights.

He’s vowed to fight the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Fred Sangris

Fred Sangris: 'I've got to make sure my grandchildren's right are protected.' (CBC)

“I've got to make sure my grandchildren's right are protected,” he told the CBC earlier this year.

Sangris was scheduled to appear in court in Yellowknife yesterday to submit his plea.

Instead, Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus and Yellowknife Dene Chief Ernest Betsina appeared on his behalf, while Sangris was at a First Aid course.

Rather than entering a plea, Erasmus had some words for the judge about aboriginal rights.

He told the judge he’s asking the RCMP to look into the validity of Sangris’, and others', woodcutting tickets.

“If it takes the RCMP to remind the Crown that there are certain laws, that there are certain principles, there was an agreement, then that is what is needed,” Erasmus told the CBC.

“This case shouldn't be in the courts,” he said. “The territorial government should have come and talked to chief and council and to the people and said, ‘You know what? We want to have regulations.’ That was never done, so they are overstepping their authority.”

Betsina had a similar message.

“I just want to represent my people. I want to protect my people,” Betsina said. “I want them to hunt, trap and fish, any time of the year. I want them to keep their treaty rights."

Both leaders say they’ve never seen as many tickets issued for cutting firewood, hunting or fishing as they have in recent years.

Steven Cooper is a lawyer who's worked extensively in the N.W.T. and Nunavut. 

Though he's not acting in this case, Cooper says he’s confused by the firewood charges.

“Whoever is laying the charges really does need to go back and read the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision from 2006, which made harvesting for non-commercial purposes in traditional areas legal, or recognized the fact that it was perfectly acceptable,” Cooper says.

“I don’t understand why a government would be charging, in this day and age, for an activity that’s already been recognized as perfectly legal.”

In court yesterday, Justice Garth Malakoe and the Crown prosecutor admitted to being a bit confused by talk of the RCMP investigation.

No plea was entered.

Justice Malakoe agreed to give Sangris another month to get a lawyer.