Some Saskatchewan First Nations say they are exploring the possibility of implementing bylaws to ban conservation officers from their reserve lands.
The move comes after the Saskatchewan government announcement this fall that some conservation officers will be armed with semi-automatic rifles.
The province says the move is in response to a court decision that determined RCMP officers were not properly equipped when they confronted a shooter in New Brunswick in 2014. Four Mounties were killed in the shooting rampage that followed.
Some First Nation leaders say they are taking the news personally — and are prepared to take a stand.
“The conservation officers that make comments saying, ‘We can go on reserve land if it’s provincial business,’ we say BS to that,” said Bobby Cameron, Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. “Don’t you dare come on our First Nation land unless you have permission. It’s called respect. And we’re sick and tired of these conservation officers thinking they can do this.”
Ken Aube, director of enforcement and investigations for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment, said he was “somewhat surprised” to hear that First Nations in the province are looking at ways to ban conservation officers from their lands.
He said conservation officers don’t do routine patrols on First Nations land, but do go onto reserves if law enforcement needs support for emergency situations or if there are calls about fish and wildlife issues.
He estimates that conservation officers have responded to calls on First Nations lands 30 times since January — about three times a month.
“We’re guided by case law and policy that gives officers the authorities to enter onto First Nations land to enforce provincial legislation, including the Wildlife Act,” he said.
The ministry is happy to talk with any First Nations that are looking at implementing local bylaws to keep conservation officers off their lands, Aube said, adding that if signs go up making it clear that conservation officers are not welcome on First Nation land, officers will still respond immediately if there is an emergency situation.
But “if it’s a fish and wildlife matter, time may not be quite as much as a factor so officers would consult with the chief and counsellors from the First Nation to discuss the conservation or safety laws that may have been violated,” he said.
Neil Sasakamoose, chief executive officer for the Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs, which represents seven First Nations, said the group is discussing a possible bylaw at its annual general meeting later this month.
“A general thought is that they do not support those people, Saskatchewan conservation officers, (going) onto their reserve land,” Sasakamoose said. “Historically, First Nations and Saskatchewan wildlife, or Saskatchewan environment for that matter, they’ve never been on the same page … First Nations feel that their hunting and treaty rights are not regulated by the Saskatchewan government. I don’t think they’ll ever accept that.”
Key First Nation Chief Clarence Papaquash said the First Nation, located about 350 kilometres south of Saskatoon, is speaking with a lawyer and seeking direction as to whether it’s possible to implement a bylaw banning conservation officers from entering reserve lands.
“We don’t want nobody in here policing us here. We got our own laws, we got our own rules,” he said. “I believe if you phone every First Nation in Saskatchewan they’ll tell you the same thing that I’m telling you … We should put up a fight when things come down like this, instead of just sitting back.”
Papaquash sees the arming of conservation officers as one more example of fallout from the shooting of Colten Boushie in 2016, which sparked racial tensions in the province.
“Everyone’s carrying guns after that Boushie case. That’s where that stems from,” he said.
Given existing racial tensions, the last thing he wants is “prejudiced people” coming onto his land with high-powered firearms, he added.
Chief Calvin Straightnose of the nearby Keeseekoose First Nation said his people are angry about the provincial announcement about conservation officers carrying carbines and will discuss a possible bylaw to keep them off Keeseekoose land in the new year.
“To me, it sounds like they’re preparing to go to war with the First Nations people,” Straightnose said. “Right now the provincial government don’t seem to respect us.”
Despite the anger directed at the provincial government and its conservation officers, Aube said the move to give conservation officers carbines is about safety and “isn’t really an option.”
The province hopes to acquire 15 carbines by the end of the year and begin training officers in their use shortly thereafter. The province expects to eventually buy 147 of the firearms.
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