Saskatchewan

Oil producing Sask. First Nations sue Canadian Government for billions

The statement of claim says the government hasn't done enough to support resource development on reserves.

The statement of claim says the government hasn't done enough to support resource development on reserves

More than 50 First Nations in Saskatchewan could be suing the Government of Canada over mismanagement of oil and gas rights on reserve lands. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

Oil producing Saskatchewan First Nations are suing the federal government in a class action lawsuit. They say the government hasn't done enough to develop the resources on First Nations.

They have this wealth of resources that lie under their lands, but the government hasn't taken active steps to ensure that those are freed up and the monies become available.- Heather Rumble Peterson, lawyer

The lawsuit is being represented by Poundmaker Cree Nation and Onion Lake Cree Nation, and could include more than 50 First Nations in Saskatchewan, after the court decides if there is enough common issues to make it a class action. 

Heather Rumble Peterson, a lawyer on the case, says the federal government hasn't done enough to support resource development on reserves.

"Reserves often find themselves to be in dire needs of funding for social programs and other unfunded programs that exist," she said. "They have this wealth of resources that lie under their lands, but the government hasn't taken active steps to ensure that those are freed up and the monies become available."

Rumble Peterson said the government has a legal obligation to develop land. Reserve land cannot be sold or leased to a private developer, unlike most other land in Canada. She says that, legally, if the First Nation has land it wishes to be developed, it designates this land to the federal government, which takes over the responsibility of dealing with the resource. The government becomes a trustee for the resource and any payments. 

"The government is then under an onus to manage and administer them, and hasn't taken the steps to actively promote that kind of development, the very thing that they're charged with doing," Rumble Peterson said.

Lawsuit takes issue with how the government develops resources

The lawsuit primarily revolves around two issues:

  • Rumble Peterson says drainage is a problem, where nearby oil wells are taking oil that is actually under reserve lands, but is being sucked up by wells next to the reserve border. While most of the reserves already have some oil wells on their property, Rumble Peterson says it's a question of doing it well enough. The statement of claim talks about Poundmaker Cree Nation, claiming there are 10 wells drilled on the perimeter of the reserve to every one operating inside it. Rumble Peterson says in some cases development that's already underway on the reserves needs to increase in order to offset the oil and gas that's being drained off the perimeter of the lands.
  • Whether the government has done everything it should be doing to put oil and gas companies onto the reserve lands to explore and begin to produce oil and gas on those lands.

The lawsuit estimates the damages suffered by the class to be $3 billion. Lawyer Harvey Strosberg said in a release, "given that the new federal government has been clear about its desire to re-build its relationship with First Nations, we hope, in this spirit, that the federal government would talk rather than immediately fight in court."

The Assembly of First Nations added its support to the lawsuit. National Chief Perry Bellegarde said in a release that mismanagement of First Nations resources has perpetuated a cycle of poverty. 

"Based on our natural resource wealth, First Nations should be among the wealthiest in Canada," Bellegarde said. 

Calls to the federal government were not immediately returned. 

With files from CBC's Tiffany Cassidy

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