Federal Court rejected Saskatchewan’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit by the Witchekan Lake First Nation over online auctions of Crown land by the province.
Witchekan Lake First Nation (WLFN) claims the province breached contractual obligations by auctioning off parcels of land that the First Nation had offered to buy in 2017 and 2019.
The province filed a motion for summary judgement seeking dismissal. On October 15 Justice Paul Favel dismissed Saskatchewan’s motion and ordered the province to pay costs. The case will proceed to trial.
Witchekan Lake First Nation Chief Anne Thomas said that by selling off Crown lands, the province is making it very difficult for First Nations to fulfil their settlement agreements, giving them less lands on which to exercise their treaty rights.
“We have tried to reason with the province, but have met roadblock after roadblock,” Thomas said. “Going to Court is not our preferred option, but it has been forced on us.”
Saskatchewan argued that none of the facts of the case are in dispute. The province held the auctions in question and declined the First Nation’s purchase requests.
“The province is confident that it has and continues to meet all of its obligations under the Saskatchewan Treaty Land Entitlement Framework Agreement,” Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice and Attorney General spokesperson Margherita Vittorelli said in a written response. The province declined to comment further as the matter is before the court.
Since 2008, Saskatchewan has been disposing of Crown land through various Crown land sales. In 2017, the province expanded its sales of Crown land through online auctions.
Since that time, the province has sold large tracts of land through online auctions despite the objections of First Nations.
“The issues are not narrow and while the Claim involves only WLFN and Saskatchewan, the resolution of any of the issues in this case will affect more than WLFN, particularly with a novel issue involving a public auction,” Favel wrote in his decision.
“Saskatchewan has not demonstrated that there is not a genuine issue for trial. WLFN does not have the burden of proving all of the facts in their case. Rather, WLFN must provide evidence showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. In my view, it has done so.”
In 2017 the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) learned of an upcoming public auction of 62 parcels of Crown land and informed the WLFN.
The First Nation submitted a land selection to the province over three parcels of land up for auction. But the province wouldn’t sell to the First Nation and auctioned it off instead.
In 2019 the First Nation learned of a second auction and submitted another land selection for three different parcels.
The province again refused to sell to the First Nation and the land went to auction.
The First Nation’s statement of claim argues that the province breached the terms of its agreements by selling Crown lands without giving proper notice or first right of refusal to WLFN.
FSIN Interim Chief Clarence Bellegarde said that’s in keeping with current practice by the province.
“The FSIN and First Nations in the province have been demanding that the province halt the sale of Crown lands, or at least provide First Nations with the opportunity to select lands before they are put up for auction, but the province has refused,” Bellegarde said.
“If the province continues to sell off these lands, there will be nothing left to fulfil the Treaty Lands Entitlement Agreements and other Specific Land Claim Settlements.”