First Nation scores 'big, big win' in Quill Lakes environmental assessment dispute with Sask. gov't

The Pasqua First Nation has settled out of court with the Saskatchewan government and secured an "enhanced engagement process" for any future proposals to redirect water into Last Mountain Lake.

Out-of-court settlement sparks promise of 'enhanced engagement process' for future drainage plans

Chief Matthew Peigan of Pasqua First Nation says it's "sad" the dispute had to end up in court. (CBC News)

A lawyer for the Pasqua First Nation says an out-of-court settlement reached with the Saskatchewan government this week will guarantee the public a say on future proposals to divert water into Last Mountain Lake.

The settlement comes six months after the First Nation took the government to court over its decision to bypass the environmental impact assessment process for a plan to move water from areas flooded by the Quill Lakes.

Groups including the First Nation had worried about the transfer of contaminated saline water into Last Mountain Lake.

"This is a big, big win for not just Pasqua First Nation but for the public generally going forward," said lawyer Jack Coop of the settlement.

"If any proponent asks the minister to exempt them [from an environmental assessment] … the public and my client have to be notified. Not only notified, but we're given all the application documents.

"That's something that didn't happen last time."

'Enhanced engagement process' promised

Last fall, Saskatchewan's assistant deputy minister of the environment, Wes Kotyk, decided an environmental assessment was not required for a drainage proposal from a group of landowners affected by flooding from the Quill Lakes area.

Kotyk's department did attach some conditions to the project, such as the need the build the proposed channel only during the winter months so as to reduce the effects on the land. 

Opposition to the proposed drainage channel kicked up after Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment decided the project did not require an environmental impact assessment. ( Auralee MacPherson)

"We conducted our thorough review of the proposal, determined it wouldn't require an environment impact assessment," said Brady Pollock, the director of the ministry's environmental assessment and stewardship branch, on Friday.

"There was obviously concerns downstream with that, and we feel that, though an enhanced engagement process, those will be addressed into the future so this could be avoided."

'Sad' it ended up in court

Pasqua First Nation owns and uses land near Last Mountain Lake and said it were not consulted about the proposal, which took members by surprise.

The First Nation applied in December to Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench for a judicial review of the provincial government's decision.

This week's settlement puts an end to that process, but Pasqua Chief Matthew Todd Peigan says it's "sad" the First Nation had to resort to legal action.

"If the up and up people were notified and they did it properly, we wouldn't have to do this," Peigan said. 

'They knew they were going to lose' 

Coop said he believes the ministry agreed to the settlement "because they knew they were going to lose this court application and it was going to be a very embarrassing and politically difficult litigation process for the Crown."

In January, the Quill Lakes Watershed Association pulled its proposal after portions of emails between the association and the ministry were released by CBC News.  

The emails showed an inappropriately "cozy" relationship between the two groups, according to a University of Saskatchewan law professor with a specialty in environmental law.

The association's executive director, Kerry Holderness, resigned last month and declined to speak to CBC News at the time.

"I urge everyone to support the efforts of the Quill Lakes Watershed Association board, the member rural and urban municipalities, and the many individuals, groups, friends and neighbours who are all dealing with the extreme weather conditions and waging their own battles with this predominantly avoidable situation," Holderness wrote in a Facebook post.

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Guy Quenneville

Reporter and web writer for CBC Saskatoon

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