PRINCE ALBERT -- The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) is asserting that resource exploration permits from the Government of Saskatchewan have no authority on First Nations' lands.

This comes after a Toronto-based uranium resource exploration company was found twice on the Birch Narrows Dene Nation without the consent of their band council.

“Resource developers must understand that provincial permits don’t give them the green light to run roughshod over our inherent and treaty rights,” said Birch Narrows Dene Nation Chief Jonathan Sylvestre.

The FSIN says they want meaningful and proper consultation prior to any resource development or extraction on treaty and traditional lands.

“Saskatchewan has no authority to authorize permits without engaging with the Nation, and without providing the Nation the opportunity to provide input. Stay off our lands unless given consent by the First Nation,” said FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron.

The Ministry of Environment says representatives of Baseload Energy Corporation met with the community on two separate occasions, Jan. 20 and Feb. 9 prior to moving workers into the area.

At the Feb. 9 meeting, Birch Narrows leadership handed the CEO of Baselode Energy, James Sykes, a cease and desist order to halt surface exploration survey work on their land.

On Feb. 10, after the order to leave was issued, Baseload workers were allegedly again found working in the area. Locals set-up a camp to monitor the area and trapline belonging to Lenard Sylvester that the workers were found using to access the forest.

In a press release issued Feb. 22, Baselode Energy announced that it has paused on-site work, “To continue further consultations with local communities.”

CTV News spoke with Sykes who said he is currently working with the provincial government to mitigate the matter and he had no further comment.

The company says it has Crown land work authorization and temporary work camp permits from the province's Ministry of Environment to conduct surveys on the Shadow Uranium Property that includes Birch Narrows First Nation.

The proposed mineral exploration is on unoccupied, public Crown land approximately 50 km northeast of the community.

In a statement, the Ministry of Environment says the permits issued to Baselode Energy are valid and the blocking of public lands is illegal.

The ministry approved phase one of the exploration project to occur by snowmobile or on foot.

Birch Narrows Dene Nation is located about 600 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon. Athabascan Basin is the world’s richest known uranium deposit.

Baselode Energy currently controls surface exploration rights to 71,821 hectares in the Athabasca Basin in northern Saskatchewan.

“They hadn’t even approached or asked the trapper who’s trapline they were using, they just went ahead,” said Ron Desjardin, the band member who first discovered workers in the area.

Band members like Desjardin are doing more research and say there’s 2,691 claims registered with the province in close proximately to the community.

“We were worried about the caribou up there and we were worried about our traditional lifestyles, trapping, hunting and fishing. And these people were infringing upon it,” said Desjardin.

Woodland Caribou are listed as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act. Desjardin says since forest fires in 2016 decimated caribou habitat and the caribou population has been significantly reduced.

Caribou are a traditional food source for Dene people.

“We understand that in this day and age people need jobs, yes, we understand that and if there’s going to be development, yes, we’d like to profit from that. Also, we’d like some revenue sharing because it is in our own backyards and we are giving up our way of life,” said Desjardin.

Saskatchewan First Nation erects blockade after company enters territory without consent

Legal expert says First Nations must be involved in any development affecting them.

Jason Warick

CBC News

Feb 21, 2021

A northern Saskatchewan First Nation blockaded a road and issued a cease-and-desist order against a Toronto uranium company.

Birch Narrows Dene Nation officials say they took action after workers with Baselode Energy Corp. started surveying the band's traditional territory without consent.

"It was very disrespectful, totally uncalled for," Birch Narrows Chief Jonathon Sylvester said. "This is not being done properly."

It's unclear how the stalemate will be broken, but the case raises a host of legal, environmental and economic issues.

One academic said Canada's Constitution and emerging case law is clear: First Nations concerns must be front and centre on any development affecting them.

"Certain behaviours or ways of doing business that might have worked in the past no longer work, based on a more robust understanding of how treaty rights and aboriginal rights need to be reconciled," lawyer and University of Saskatchewan lecturer Benjamin Ralston said.

'They can't do this stuff to us'

Birch Narrows trapper and elder Ron Desjardin discovered the survey crew earlier this month on one of the community's trap lines, 600 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

The area sits on the edge of the Athabasca Basin. It's home to some of the world's richest uranium deposits but also to endangered woodland caribou, lynx and other wildlife.

Desjardin called Sylvester to see whether he had given permission for the crew to begin its work. Sylvester had not.

A few days later, the Baselode Energy workers were again seen at the site. Desjardin told them they shouldn't be there, particularly since the area was in lockdown because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

"Man, that really was infuriating because it was just so disrespectful. Just total disregard," Desjardin said. "We're not back in the 1800s anymore. They can't do this stuff to us."

A teepee blockade was set up across the road and Birch Narrows leaders issued a cease-and-desist order against the company.

Desjardin and Sylvester said it's even more frustrating because it seemed the company was initially acting in good faith. The previous week, both sides had a meeting and agreed to talk more before any work began.

Baselode offered to build a cell tower for the community, but Desjardin said he told them it wasn't a high priority.

Birch Narrows wanted a detailed wildlife and habitat impact study conducted before things went any further. Desjardin said the endangered woodland caribou are his biggest concern.

"Also as a trap line area, we carry out extensive activity: trapping, hunting, fishing. We've done it for generations. It's been passed down to us for a long, long time," he said.

"We have people who have passed away on those trap lines, who have given up their lives on those trap lines in their struggle to feed their families. That area means a lot to us. It's not just an ordinary piece of land. It has a lot of significance to us as a community."

Company says it obtained all provincial permits

Stephen Stewart, the chair of Baselode's board, said in an interview that the company obtained all necessary provincial permits. He said the initial survey would have next to no environmental impact.

Stewart said the company started work because it has to be done when the ground is frozen, but he acknowledged that waiting a week until after the second meeting with the First Nation wouldn't have mattered.

Stewart also said he meant no disrespect.

"I will note that we are permitted to do this work, but permit and the consent of the community are different things," he said.

"In any project that is in the extractive business, you absolutely need to have these local communities as partners. Not to be cliché, but it is a win-win for everybody."

Stewart said he and his officials will work closely with Birch Narrows. He's now promising the project will not proceed unless the First Nation agrees.

"There can be no project without the buy-in from the communities," he said.

Stewart said in an email that the CEO of Baseload "maintains personal/professional relationships with chiefs, band members and community members." CBC News asked to speak with one of them but Stewart declined.

Traditional land-use study not required, province says

Neither Saskatchewan Environment Minister Warren Kaeding nor Energy and Resources Minister Bronwyn Eyre was made available for an interview.

A provincial official emailed a response.

The official said Birch Narrows was given ample time to voice any concerns. Like Stewart, they said this is an exploration phase and there will be no drilling or digging.

The province takes the position that a traditional land-use study is not required by law. In the statement, the official said that "deliberately blocking Crown lands is illegal" and could be referred to the RCMP.

But law instructor Ralston of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon said the Constitution and recent Supreme Court of Canada rulings make it clear that there is a "duty to consult and accommodate" Indigenous rights holders.

Those inherent and treaty rights override any provincial permit process, he said. That's why provincial governments and resource companies are better off working in good faith with First Nations than risking a time-consuming, expensive court battle they may not win, he said.

"At the end of the day, Aboriginal and treaty rights are constitutionally entrenched. So if the process by which those permits were issued is in breach of the Crown's obligations, then a court could invalidate those," Ralston said.

The blockade is no longer up, but Birch Narrows members are patrolling the area regularly.

Trapper and elder Desjardin said they're still willing to talk, but only if the government and Baselode treat the First Nation's members with respect.

"We were caught off guard, and we don't want that to happen again. We don't want people just moving in without a proper consultation process," Desjardin said.

"We need to be able to have a dialogue. Let's sit down."