Sask. First Nation says crackdown on unauthorized renting of reserve land behind recent protest
Demonstration ended after judge granted band's injunction request
A recent occupation of the Carry the Kettle First Nation's (CTK) band office south of Indian Head, Sask., was related to accountability, according to one of the lead demonstrators — but the band says it was about a land management bylaw.
The Oct. 13 protest lasted less than a day after a Regina judge granted an injunction requested by chief and council.
Connie Gray Bellegarde, one of the protesters and a member of the First Nation's elders group, said the protesters held the demonstration because they want to know where band money has been spent.
She said they want any transaction over $5,000 considered by the chief and council to be brought to band members and passed by the membership.
"That is all we want," she said.
CTK Chief Brady O'Watch said the band posts its audited financial statements on its website — and the audits have been unqualified "for a long time."
An unqualified opinion means that no material misstatements have been identified by auditors in the statements.
New bylaw targets 'buckshee agreements'
O'Watch said the issue was a new land management bylaw, which came into effect this year and relates to the band's on-reserve agricultural lands.
Gray Bellegarde denies that but said the bylaw is an example of the band council implementing laws without formal ratification from the band's membership.
In a letter sent to band members last year, CTK said the main aim of the new bylaw would be to return the benefits of the First Nation's agricultural reserve land to all members as opposed to "those few who actually ranch, farm and cut hay."
"The current practice of informal buckshee agreements between individual members and non-members to rent agricultural reserve land will stop," the letter said.
Buckshee agreements are informal arrangements for use of land by third parties that are not legally enforceable.
Instead, users of the First Nation's agricultural lands, both members and non-members, will be required to pay a permit fee equivalent to fair market value rent, the band said.
It estimated the new permit fees could bring in $1 million to the First Nation each year — on top of the higher rent it could charge and the "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in additional federal funding it would receive to manage the land.
O'Watch said the band consulted its members about the new policy. He said most were in favour of it, but not the people with the buckshee agreements.
"Obviously, they're upset that we're looking to do things in a more 21st-century way," the chief said. "[It's] a more modern way to look at sharing the land, sharing revenue back to our nation as a whole."
Gray Bellegarde said she can't speak for any other family, but said the land she farms is known as "Gray land."
Because she doesn't have a facility to house her cattle in the winter, Gray Bellegarde said she's made arrangements with a neighbour who has a farm adjacent to hers.
In return for housing her cattle for the winter, his cattle graze a portion of what she considers her land in the summer.
Gray Bellegarde said she has a contract to that effect, and was told it was legal and binding — but wasn't prepared to say who gave her that advice.
Family cleared 'awarded' land, band member says
Gray Bellegarde didn't know all the particulars, but she has been told that reserve land was "awarded" to her family "through the war veterans" because her grandfather served in both the First and Second World Wars and her father served in WWII, she said.
Gray Bellegarde noted the land was once all bush.
"Our family, with a lot of blood, sweat and tears and love, cleared this land so that it could become agricultural land," she said.
"I really have a problem with this chief and council feeling they have the right to come in here after all of our work and take this away from us."
She said that agricultural land would not exist, and would still be bush, if her family did not work it and clear it.
When asked if her family would be willing to pay the new permit fees, Gray Bellegarde said she doesn't think there is anyone on the reserve who is prepared to pay to live there.
CTK band councillor Shawn Spencer said, since the new land management bylaw came into effect, there has already been some compliance.
There were 15 families with buckshee agreements, but that number has now dropped down to nine, Spencer said.
"We've had some families come in and start leases and/or permits for the lands that they're using, which is good news," he said. "It's working ... we're slowly getting there."
Spencer said the vision is to have anyone using the land get a permit, whether they be band members or non-band members.
Gray Bellegarde said there are families in "several other reserves" in similar disputes as hers that are watching the outcome in Carry the Kettle closely.
Band members deny designation of agricultural land
Meanwhile, Gray Bellegarde said the band council's desires to designate agricultural reserve land are at odds with the wishes of the people.
Council failed in its bid to have members approve the designation of more than 5,200 hectares of reserve and pre-reserve CTK lands in a vote held last March.
In a newsletter to members earlier this year, the band described land designation as an opportunity for the membership to reap the benefits of collected land taxes by leasing land to "commercial industry leaders." It added the First Nation and its members could also benefit from rent, as well as revenue from band-owned businesses and employment opportunities.
In a land designation Q & A posted to CTK's website, it said — once the land was designated — leases could be granted in the future for agricultural, commercial, retail, recreational, residential, industrial, institutional or educational purposes.
The band told its members in April that its 25-year concept plan was an "extended vision of what the, now, bare wheat fields could ascend to" in terms of community building and progress for the Carry the Kettle First Nation.
The band noted it had successfully designated surface, oil and gas interests in 2005, as well as petroleum and natural gas interests in 1950.
Prior to the March vote, CTK said it held five land designation votes in 2018 — and "for various reasons" the designations were not approved by the majority of electors who voted.
Gray Bellegarde said band members do not want land designation.
"The land designation is going to turn this into an RM and not a reserve, and we don't want that," she said. "Any outside people can come in here and do whatever they want without the consent of the people — and that is very, very wrong."
Chief says 'misinformation' stalling land designation
The chief said band members have voted against the land designation because of "misinformation" and because some people are confusing land designation with something else.
"By no means can anybody sell this land," O'Watch emphasized.
On its website, the band said none of the First Nation's home reserve lands (IR Assiniboine 76) would be designated.
It also said individuals or companies that leased the designated land could use and occupy it for a specific purpose and period of time, if they complied with the terms and conditions of the lease.
O'Watch said the band will make another attempt next year to have its members formally approve the designation of its lands.