Kelly Lake Cree Nation says landmark Supreme Court decision bolsters land claim

Kelly Lake Cree Nation leaders in B.C. say the landmark Daniels vs. Canada case, which ruled that Métis and non-status Indians are the responsibility of the federal government, bolsters their fight for title to their territory.

'Daniels case strengthens our will to resolve our land grievance,' says Chief Kwarakwante Cliff Calliou

Chief Cliff Calliou stands with National Chief Perry Bellegarde following the passing of a special resolution to support Kelly Lake Cree Nation at the Assembly of First Nations gathering in Gatineau, Que., this past December. (Courtesy of Kelly Lake Cree Nation)

The chief of Kelly Lake Cree Nation in B.C. says the landmark Daniels vs. Canada case, which ruled that Métis and non-status Indians are the responsibility of the federal government, bolsters their fight for title to their territory.

The community on the border of B.C. and Alberta is not a treaty signatory, and has been fighting for the past 20 years to prove its existence as an independent First Nation.

"The declaration outlined in the Daniels case strengthens our will to resolve our land grievance," Chief Kwarakwante Cliff Calliou said in a news release.

"We will continue to defend and uphold the inherent Indigenous rights and title to our territory. The government of Canada is fully aware that we are ready to negotiate an agreement."

Treaty 8 and Treaty 6 territories are nearby, but Kelly Lake Cree Nation was left out of negotiations when those treaties were signed.

In the 1950s, the community was supposed to be assessed by a government official, but they "couldn't come to our community because of high waters, so they forgot about us," Calliou told CBC.

Calliou believes the Daniels case will help clear up any confusion about whether the community is a sovereign Indigenous community.

Community not Métis

Kelly Lake Cree Nation was incorrectly labelled a Métis settlement in the 1970s, Calliou said. 

"For us, we had never heard the word Métis before. It was something new from one of the leaders ... from outside [the community], and that's always the problem," he said.

Members of the community are the descendents of Cree and Dane-zaa people, and there are traces of Iroquois in their lineage. 

Prior to the Daniels case, members of Kelly Lake Cree Nation could only attain Indian status by tracing their genealogy to another First Nation — one recognized by the federal government.

"Indian Affairs tried to take that shortcut, saying if your people can go get your status under Bill C-31, then we can form a new band," said Calliou.

Calliou said this process does not work for an entire community that wants recognition as a First Nation, with links to an area of land that has never been recognized as belonging to them. 

Industry operating without negotiation

Since the government previously didn't recognize Kelly Lake Cree Nation's inherent Indigenous right to land, companies have been able to operate there without first negotiating with the community.

"A good example was they came to drill a well site right by our lake … and it was a fracking well. A lot of our wells were damaged," said Calliou.

The community's hunting and trapping has also been destroyed by industry and clearcut logging, he said.

"So there's a huge damage in our way of life."

'The government turned around and said, "Well, we don't recognize you, you're nobody."' - Kelly Lake Cree Nation Chief Cliff Calliou  

The community complained to Indian Affairs, but "the government turned around and said, 'Well, we don't recognize you, you're nobody,'" said Calliou.

There is also a gas plant four kilometres north of the community, which Calliou said emits an unpleasant smell.

Claim to land strengthened

In 1996, the community filed a comprehensive land claim against the federal government, which says the community are descendants of Indigenous people who have lived in the area since time immemorial.

"In our last claim, we were suing for $5 billion of lost revenue, lost resources and damages to our land," said Calliou.

Now that the Daniels Case ensures members of Kelly Lake Cree Nation can claim Indian status, Calliou believes their 20-year-old land claim is strengthened. 

"If the government of Canada wants to go through the whole rhetoric of challenging our argument, at the end of the day, they are going to lose because they lost every case that has ever come through," said Calliou. 

Calliou also believes the federal government has an obligation to live up to what was proposed during their campaign in 2015.

"I'm trying to hold Trudeau to that campaign promise that he's made. Here's a good opportunity for the government of Canada to put something on the table, like a framework agreement for Kelly Lake Cree Nation," said Calliou.

"We are not fooling around here, we mean business, we are serious."