Sask. road project on hold following Indigenous artifact discovery

A controversial road project has been put on hold by the local municipality in central Saskatchewan after First Nations rallied to preserve the rare artifacts and sites along the route.

Municipality orders review after First Nations rally to preserve site

Landowner Jim Gilroy, right, leads a group to the spot on his land in Saskatchewan where rare Indigenous artifacts were recently unearthed. He was surprised a grader cut a large swath through a proposed grid road site, even though they were told construction wouldn't begin until June 10. (Jason Warick/CBC)

A controversial road project has been put on hold by the local municipality in central Saskatchewan after First Nations rallied to preserve the rare artifacts and sites found along the route.

Construction was set to begin Monday, but that's not going to happen, according to a statement from the rural municipality of Winslow, located approximately 150 kilometres west of Saskatoon.

"Council will take this month to review how to move ahead in an appropriate manner," Reeve Sheldon McLean said in a statement to CBC News. 

McLean said the municipality has received "some concerns" about the project, but has complied with all provincial regulations. No road construction will take place until at least the end of June.

A growing coalition of First Nations said Thursday morning it's prepared to "go the distance" to stop the project.

First Nations leaders were demanding a meeting with the provincial government. They also wanted someone to explain how the project could have been approved, even though the government was made aware of the artifacts, which could be as much as 10,000 years old.

"We call for immediate action, and a halt to construction until there is consultation," Chief Bobby Cameron said during a news conference Thursday morning at the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) offices in Saskatoon. He was joined by chiefs, lawyers and others from across the province.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron (speaking), flanked by First Nations leaders, says they're willing to launch a legal challenge if the provincial government refuses to talk to them about the recent discovery of sacred artifacts. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Cameron said they "are not hesitant to begin a legal challenge" if the government and municipality refuse to work with them. He said the FSIN will support the Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs (BATC), which has been working with the Dodsland-area farmers who notified them of the discovery.

Cameron said this issue affects all First Nations people, but it's also important for all Saskatchewan people. These discoveries could answer questions about this land's history thousands of years before European settlement or the establishment of Canada and Saskatchewan.

Saulteaux First Nation Chief Kenny Moccasin agreed.

"I find it very disturbing the province did not consult any of us. When we signed treaties, we agreed we would share this land and work together," Moccassn told reporters.

Several First Nations leaders again praised the farmers, Mitzi and Jim Gilroy, for notifying them. The Gilroys welcomed elders to the site for a pipe ceremony Monday, then hosted a lunch for everyone at their farmhouse.

Saulteaux First Nation Chief Kenny Moccasin says their ancestors signed treaties to share the land and work together, and hopes the government will talk to them about the controversial road project. (Jason Warick/CBC)

"They are special people. We are so grateful. They are the salt of the earth. Those good relations are so important," said Neil Sasakamoose of BATC.

Candace Caswell with the ministry of parks, culture and sport said the municipality has followed all required processes for the project.

Caswell said the municipality hired an archeological firm which found artifacts in three locations. Upon further excavation it determined that items were fairly contained along the three kilometres in question.

"Within that 100-foot strip [30 metres], we're fairly confident that they've identified the pieces that need to be protected and conserved," said Caswell. "Does that mean the rest of the hill doesn't have things on it? It might. But in our case we're interested in that narrow strip of the actual project for the road."

Caswell said the artifacts found will be protected by the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

Candace Caswell with the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport said the R.M. has followed all required processes in regards to the project. (CBC News/Kirk Fraser)

Caswell said the municipality will get to decide whether to proceed with the project. 

"They're taking a pause to decide what they want to do next based on the feedback they've been getting." 

Within the legislation, there is no duty to consult First Nations when artifacts are found. If it was a burial site, there would be a different process, Caswell said.

Cameron and Sasakamoose say that's wrong and the law needs to change. Others agree.

Earlier this week, Saskatchewan Archeological Society executive director Tomasin Playford told CBC News forging ahead with the road may be legal, but it's wrong.

"I think there's a moral obligation," Playford said Tuesday. "This is the material culture likely of descendants living today. They have a right to know about the site, and they should involved in any kind of decision-making process."

The lawyer for BATC sent a letter to the government demanding consultation.

"These sites and artifacts are deemed sacred to the Nations," says the letter obtained by CBC News.

This piece of volcanic obsidian was discovered with other Indigenous artifacts west of Biggar recently. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

The items include fragments of a stone spearhead or knife up to 10,000 years old, according to the government's own evaluation. There's also a stone cairn with a small scraping tool made of volcanic obsidian stone traced to the Yellowstone National Park area of Wyoming.

Historians and archeologists say the findings, potentially the oldest in the province's history, could help explain ancient settlement and trade patterns of this region.

Despite the discovery, no First Nations were notified or consulted. The provincial government granted approval for road construction to the local rural municipality.

The new grid road being constructed is just north of Dodsland, Sask. (CBC)

Leaders of the seven area First Nations of the BATC, as well as other signatories, say the government is violating their treaty rights and is contradicting a recent ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada.

In 2017, the top court quashed plans for seismic testing in Nunavut, delivering a major victory to Inuit who argued they were inadequately consulted before the National Energy Board gave oil companies the green light to conduct the disruptive activity. 

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled the NEB's consultation process in Clyde River was "significantly flawed" and gave little, if any, consideration to the treaty rights of Inuit and their reliance on marine mammals for subsistence.

Edgar Baptiste speaks to farmers, First Nations leaders and others following a pipe ceremony west of Biggar on Monday. Artifacts up to 10,000 years old were recently found there, including a piece of volcanic obsidian stone not native to Saskatchewan. (Jason Warick/CBC)

The government's actions show "complete disregard" for the rights of First Nations and their cultural history, says the letter from their lawyer, Keerit Jutla.

It makes three demands:

  • The government explain why it approved the project, "despite having extensive knowledge of these archeological sites."
  • There be a meeting with provincial officials.
  • The construction, which is set to begin Monday, stop until First Nations are adequately consulted.
Mitzi Gilroy kneels behind one of several spots on her ranch land west of Biggar where Indigenous artifacts dating back up to 10,000 years were discovered. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Sheldon Wuttunee, a former chief of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation and one of the signatories, said he hopes the government and the municipality will reconsider.

"Let's just sit down together and figure out a solution," Wuttunee said.