Saskatchewan's artifact laws 'perpetuate colonization': Indigenous archeologist

Saskatchewan laws governing ancient artifacts "perpetuate colonization" and need to change, according to an Indigenous archeologist.

Legislation under scrutiny following ancient artifact discovery near Dodsland, Sask.

Edgar Baptiste speaks to farmers, First Nations leaders and elders and others at the site of an ancient artifact discovery near Dodsland, Sask. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Saskatchewan laws governing ancient artifacts "perpetuate colonization" and need to change, according to an Indigenous archeologist.

"That law needs to be rewritten," archeologist and University of Alberta professor Kisha Supernant said.

"When you have non-Indigenous people making decisions about what happens with Indigenous history, you're continuing to perpetuate colonization."

Saskatchewan's heritage legislation has come under scrutiny after ancient artifacts were discovered along the proposed route for a gravel road 150 kilometres west of Saskatoon, near the town of Dodsland.

No one from the provincial government or rural municipality told First Nations in the area about the artifacts, which could be as much as 10,000 years old. The First Nations found out this month from a local farm couple.

This piece of volcanic obsidian was unearthed from the site of a controversial road project near Dodsland, Sask. Some of the artifacts from the site could be as much as 10,000 years old, according to a government document. (Jason Warick/CBC)

With First Nations threatening legal action and a blockade, the project has been put on hold until at least July 1 while a review is conducted.

A provincial government official has said they're open to ideas, but that all the rules in this case were followed. The official noted there's no requirement in Saskatchewan to notify First Nations.

Supernant, other archeologists and First Nations leaders said Saskatchewan's heritage legislation is outdated and flawed. It hasn't been updated since 1980, long before terms like reconciliation were common and long before several Supreme Court rulings affirming Indigenous rights.

They'd like Saskatchewan to follow B.C. and other provinces, which partner with First Nations at all stages when artifacts are discovered.

The B.C. government "is committed to working collaboratively with local Indigenous communities to study and preserve the find," a Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation official said in an email.

Indigenous archaeologist Kisha Supernant says First Nations should be told when ancient artifacts are discovered, and should have a say over the fate of those objects. (Submitted by Kisha Supernant)

Supernant has studied the effect of this policy on B.C. development projects and said consultation helps everyone.

"Honestly, if you open up the dialogue from the beginning, there tends to be a lot fewer — not none — but a lot fewer issues," she said. "You're already talking. There's already awareness. There's already a conversation and consultation happening,"

Supernant helps First Nations and Métis communities to map their sacred sites. She's also helping some B.C. First Nations to create their own heritage laws. She said that will help them assert their sovereignty with other levels of government or in the courts.

Tim Lasiuta, a heritage protection officer for the Mountain Cree First Nation near Red Deer, Alta., agrees. He said he's saddened by the lack of respect the Saskatchewan government is showing First Nations.

He and archeologist Joe Frombold are working to create a network of more than 100 archaeologists across Canada to monitor sites with Indigenous cultural value.

He congratulated the Saskatchewan municipality which put the road project on hold and said he hopes they'll decide to cancel the project entirely.

"The fact is the area could be full of valuable artifacts. We just don't know yet," he said.