Onion Lake Cree Nation voices concerns about Sask. trespassing law

Saskatchewan's updated trespassing law, which came into effect on Jan. 1, is raising some concerns among leadership of Onion Lake Cree Nation, who argues it restricts the treaty right to hunt and gather on Crown land.

Law could restrict access to Crown lands where First Nations exercise treaty right to hunt, gather, says chief

Recent changes to trespassing laws in Saskatchewan were the topic of a news conference hosted by Onion Lake Cree Nation's chief and a member of the legislative assembly on Wednesday. (Matt Garand/CBC)

The Onion Lake Cree Nation says it's worried a combination of land sales and Saskatchewan's trespassing laws will create problems for those trying to practise their treaty rights to hunt and gather.

As of Jan. 1, those who wish to use private property are required to contact land owners before accessing their land for activities like fishing, hunting, snowmobiling or hiking.

NDP MLA for Saskatoon–Centre Betty Nippi Albright joined Onion Lake Cree Nation's Chief Henry Lewis to share how the laws could impact people in Onion Lake.

Lewis noted people from Onion Lake are impacted by a similar bill in Alberta that, although worded differently, could also impact treaty harvesters through fines or jail time.

"If somebody gets charged, probably, we will have to intervene," Lewis said.

"I will continue to fight for our people, when it comes to our sustenance. Our food security is at stake here and that's what the general public has to realize."

The province previously told CBC that the Trespass to Property Amendment Act does not impede on the treaty rights of treaty holders. 

"The recent trespass related amendments were never intended to affect treaty hunting and fishing rights and, indeed, by law cannot affect those rights," said the province in a statement. 

Nippi-Albright said that's not exactly the case.

She said First Nations people sometimes find private property adjacent to the Crown lands they use to exercise their treaty and inherent rights to hunt and gather. Sometimes, lands that used to be Crown lands are sold and become private land without their knowledge.

In order to cross onto that land, they're required by Saskatchewan's trespassing laws to contact the property owners, but that isn't always something they can do, Nippi-Albright said.

"This is happening today and mainstream people need to understand that Indigenous people are not able, First Nations people are not able to exercise their treaty rights," she said.

"How many First Nations are going to be charged crossing private land to get to the Crown lands to exercise their treaty rights?"

Lewis said that while the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations had planned to take the province's trespassing act to court, he had no intentions of starting similar actions yet.

Such a decision would have to be made with the guidance of Onion Lake Cree Nation's council, he said.

Nippi-Albright said she would like to see the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities engage with First Nations to hear their concerns about the new trespassing laws.

The organization's president Ray Orb said he had yet to formally sit down with Nippi-Albright to hear her concerns about the laws, though he had just met with the NDP caucus and planned to meet with the MLA soon.