What happens when a government recognizes more than half a million new Aboriginal People?
The tiny community of Kelly Lake is shaping up to be a test of a landmark Supreme Court ruling on that question.
The Supreme Court’s decision last month to recognize 400,000 non-status Indians and 200,000 Métis people raises new questions about who represents unrecognized Aboriginal People.
As least four groups claim to speak for some part of Kelly Lake’s aboriginal population, both at the 109-person settlement 80 kilometres south of Dawson Creek and hundreds more with family ties to the community.
Before last month’s Supreme Court ruling in Daniels vs. Canada, which recognizes non-status native people and Métis under the 1867 Constitution, disagreement between those organizations had largely been confined to the community.
Some of the tensions emerged on April 28, when representatives of the Kelly Lake Cree Nation appeared before the Peace River Regional District following the Daniels decision to ask for recognition as the “legal entity most appropriate to represent the interests of the community of Kelly Lake.”
At least three other groups claim similar status, including the Kelly Lake Métis Settlement Society, the Kelly Lake First Nation and Foothills First Nation.
The Supreme Court’s decision raises questions about which group or groups will ultimately be recognized by the federal government. The answer to that question will have implications for resource development in the region, which includes hundreds of gas wells, the Site C dam and the route of the Northern Gateway pipeline.
Forced out of Jasper
The Daniels decision extends some of the federal government’s obligations to First Nations to non-status Indians and Métis people—including fiduciary duties and the duty to consult on resource projects impacting traditional land use.
Whether they identify as Métis or non-status Indian, Aboriginal People in Kelly Lake trace their ancestry to Cree and Iroquois trappers who travelled west with the fur trade. Their ancestors were forced out of what is now Jasper National Park to make way for the railroad in 1915. A year later, they left a settlement at Flying Shot Lake near Grande Prairie and acquired land at Kelly Lake.
While the reasons are disputed, Aboriginal People in Kelly Lake were never recognized by the federal government. That means the community has received fewer government services than other aboriginal settlements, while many resource development projects have gone ahead without consulting the people of Kelly Lake.
All four leaders agreed the Daniels decision will give Kelly Lake more say in resource projects.
‘The only bona fide representative’
Who will get that say, though, remains to be seen.
Just two weeks after the Daniels decision, Kelly Lake Cree Nation (KLCN) representatives were before the Peace River Regional District (PRRD) to request the board’s recognition.
The Kelly Lake Cree Nation was incorporated as a non-profit society in 1996 and currently has a land claim against the federal government, as well as a civil suit against the province of B.C. for failing to consult on resource management. According to a handout included with the presentation to the regional district, the Cree nation was not included in the treaty process and has never surrendered title to its traditional territory.
Chief Cliff Calliou, the nation’s hereditary leader and Jeff Ginter, a consultant, argued the organization is the “only bona fide representative” of the people of Kelly Lake, asking the board to recognize the Cree nation as the legal entity in the community. Ginter said the Cree Nation manages property in Kelly Lake, provides social services and holds public meetings.
“There’s no other group, society, special interest, break out branch…there’s no one else who can say these things,” he said.
“The Cree Nation is legitimate in this matter.”
The nation was last before the regional district in 2014 to ask for an agreement on emergency response, solid waste, recreation and other regional services. While talks between the regional district and the Kelly Lake Cree Nation produced a draft agreement, the board balked in December 2015 after hearing a delegation from the Foothills First Nation.
Vying for recognition
Foothills First Nation was founded in 2011. President Lois Duke said the group would be making a statement on Kelly Lake governance in the near future.
Others have a longer history. Claire Gauthier, head of the Kelly Lake First Nation, said the Cree Nation “splintered” from his organization in 1996.
“He says he’s the only recognized group, but there’s other groups in the community,” he said. “He’s not the only one.”
There’s also the Kelly Lake Métis Settlement Society, which President Lyle Campbell-Letendre said has 120 members. In 2015, that society filed discrimination lawsuits against the province of B.C. and the federal government in B.C. Supreme Court.
He said Métis people in Kelly Lake will now have to be consulted on resource development projects.
“(The Daniels decision) is huge. We never thought in our lifetime this was going to happen,” he said.
“(The province) tore our land apart without even asking. No consultation. Absolutely none.”
The regional district has yet to make any agreement with the Kelly Lake groups, and several directors wondered how they could agree to work with one over another.
“We’ve had a couple other groups that have sat at that (delegation) table and made similar claims as to who they represent and who the other guys don’t,” director Dan Rose said.
“How are we supposed to make a decision on who’s right and who’s wrong?”
Ginter said the Cree Nation hopes to complete an agreement before the end of October.
“Should the board decide to not go down this trail with us, then KLCN will have no alternative but to look at other remedies and weigh other options,” he said.
Regional district staff are expected to prepare a report on Kelly Lake for a later meeting.
‘Outcome of colonialism’
Bruce Miller, a University of B.C. professor who studies and works with non-recognized native people, said it will likely be decades before the impact of the Daniels decision is fully understood.
“So many Indigenous people weren’t put into a relationship with the government, and now they have the grounds to do so because they’re all recognized under the rubric of Indian,” he said. “I can’t even imagine what’s going to happen next.”
While he wasn’t aware of the Kelly Lake issues specifically, he said he’s seen similar disputes among native people in Canada, the United States and even Brazil.
Under Canada’s system, groups that were once informal “have had to become fixed in place so you can have a relationship with the government,” Miller said.
“This kind of problem isn’t anything new. You could say it’s the outcome of the process of colonialism,” he said.
“There have long been problems around who holds rights of relationship to the federal government, and implicitly to the provincial government.”
First Nations bands are constantly changing, Miller said. The Sto:lo Nation of the Fraser Valley, for example, has gone through at least four “permutations” since the 1970s.
“They’re constantly rearranging who’s going to do what with the federal government.”
Miller added that while the Daniels decision will likely lead to more aboriginal groups seeking recognition, it’s not a question of personal gain.
“These types of people have had unfortunate circumstances for so damn long,” he said.
“They haven’t survived with an identity with the expectation they’re going to get any kind of material benefit from it.”
“There are many instances I know of where they could go and join other tribes or bands and get material benefit now. They simply won’t because they feel they have to honour the identity of their ancestors.”