11 April 2019; originally published March 8, 2019 by Ana Simeon, RAVEN Trust
It was an emotional moment. The morning of February 19th, Beaver Lake Cree elders and community members crowded into a packed courtroom, having risen before dawn to make the 3-hour journey from Lac La Biche to the Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton. The sense of expectancy was palpable: after waiting for so many years, thwarted by Canada and Alberta at every step, would they finally receive justice?
Throughout the hearing, the court heard affidavit evidence from 10 band members. In submission after submission, Beaver Lake Cree people expressed many painful losses. Elders, knowledge keepers and community members described how, due to unchecked industry, they are no longer able to meaningfully exercise the way of life and culture that was promised to them under Treaty 6. They spoke of the broken promises reflected in the 19,000+ Crown authorizations for tar sands and other industrial development in their territory.
Loss of caribou, pollution of water, fragmentation of culture: over three long days, Beaver Lake Cree witnesses spoke of the tragic consequences of neglected treaty rights in northern Alberta.
It was inspiring to see the resilience of this community that travelled for hours to have their presence felt. Youth sat front and centre, attentively listening and watching the colonial system in action. Elders struggled to hear but seemed to find humour in the evidence; specifically at claims from the province that Beaver Lake does not live in poverty.
Part of what was being debated at the hearing is whether the issues raised by the Beaver Lake Cree are of national importance. Of course, we think that they are: this is a case that goes to the heart of what Canada’s responsibility to uphold the treaties really means. In particular, the case — known as The Tar Sands Trial — addresses questions about whether Treaty 6 (and all the Numbered Treaties) assures Indigenous Peoples of a way of life, and whether there should be limits to how much land and resources the Crown can take up, as allowed in the agreement, before the Treaty is infringed.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government denies that the rights asserted by the Beaver Lake Cree even exist. The Crown denies that treaty infringement has taken place. For these hearings, a whole suite of Department of Justice lawyers has been tasked to challenge an under-resourced First Nation’s attempts to secure the funding it needs to go to trial.
“Canada’s position in Court stands in stark contrast to the high-level promises of the Trudeau government to promote reconciliation and to listen to Indigenous people,” says Me Karey Brooks, legal counsel for Beaver Lake Cree. “Without this case, and the advanced funding order, these critically important issues will not get resolved.”
It is important to remember that reconciliation has a specific meaning in law: it is about forcing Crown sovereignty to take account with and be reconciled with the pre-existing rights of Indigenous Peoples, reflecting the prior use and occupation of land and resources. The issues being brought forward by the Beaver Lake Cree are deeply significant for First Nations across the country – and for all Canadians who care about acting honourably and setting right our relationships with Indigenous Peoples.
That’s why we recognize that this small Nation should not have to foot the bill for this fight on their own.
At RAVEN, we are used to quick and nimble fundraising campaigns in support of rapid-response Indigenous legal challenges to pipeline and mining projects. The Beaver Lake Cree case has been different – it’s been legally complex, fiercely denied by Canada and Alberta, lengthy and drawn out. It’s hard to believe, but the Nation has been championing their treaty rights for more than a decade!
We’re amazed and humbled by that commitment and staying power. We applaud Beaver Lake Cree leadership for standing up again and again to demand justice. They do so strengthened in the knowledge that so many donors like yourself are at their backs. The wave of support from all across the country this fall and winter has been incredible – we’ve raised $246,000 and counting, more than 90% of it from people organizing, fundraising, and donating to see justice done. Please accept our most heartfelt gratitude.
We couldn’t have done this without movement allies, such as Equiterre, the Leap, and Climate Justice Edmonton, along with online fundraisers who have reached out to family and friends for support for the Beaver Lake Cree.
As we all wait for the court decision, know that you are doing your part to defend the spirit of the Treaties, and to forge a new way forward for this country that upholds the rights of the Indigenous Peoples who have stewarded the land, air and water since time immemorial. It is our honour to be standing with you.
With gratitude, Laurie, Ana and the whole RAVEN team
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