Right of way: First Nations fighting Manitoba government over access road

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is backing two First Nations communities who are in a battle with the province over a road they say is vital to their treaty rights.

St. Theresa Point, Berens River say old winter road to traditional territory 'vital to our existence'

Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, says the AMC has sent "a clear message" to the Manitoba Conservation on protecting treaty rights. (CBC)

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is backing two First Nations communities who are in a battle with the province over a road they say is vital to their treaty rights.

"We will support our First Nations and will continue to fight to protect our ability to exercise our inherent and treaty right without interference," said AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak. 

The province claims St. Theresa Point First Nation and Berens River First Nation — both remote communities accessible only by winter road, boat, or airplane — are constructing a road on Crown land without authority.

A notice sent to the First Nations on Jan. 16 ordered them to cease all construction activity and remove all equipment by Jan. 20. 

The previous governments have respected the customary practice, however the Pallister government is now taking steps to eliminate this practice.- Berens River First Nation Chief Hartley Everett 

The road connects the two communities and is used as part of their inherent and treaty right to hunting, trapping, and gathering, the AMC states. For the last two years, it's been built on the site of an old winter road that dates back to the 1940s.

"Our communities have constructed access roads in our traditional territories for many years using dog sleigh, Ski-Doos and graders. It's a right we have supported by the Supreme Court of Canada," Berens River First Nation Chief Hartley Everett said in a statement released by the AMC.

"It has become a challenge for our people to access our traditional lands with the imposition of provincial laws. The previous governments have respected the customary practice, however the Pallister government is now taking steps to eliminate this practice."

Those sentiments were echoed by Chief David McDougall of St. Theresa Point First Nation, who said access to traditional territory "is vital to our existence."

"The Crown promised we would continue our way of life and to have access to our lands for hunting without disruption. The premier is deliberately contravening and ignoring his own law that exempts us to freely use our lands."

The AMC said on Friday that its executive council of chiefs has passed a motion to support St. Theresa Point and Berens River on their challenge of the provincial order.

The AMC has also sent what it calls "a clear message" to the Manitoba Conservation on protecting treaty rights.

CBC News has requested a response from the province.