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Northern elders, leaders raise bombing range concerns with UN rep

Special Rapporteur James Anaya visits Buffalo River Dene Nation

by Sandra Cuffe

Buffalo River First Nation hosted UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya on October 13, 2013. photo: Sandra Cuffe
Buffalo River First Nation hosted UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya on October 13, 2013. photo: Sandra Cuffe
Members of the 1994 hunting party that resulted in trespassing charges address Anaya.
Members of the 1994 hunting party that resulted in trespassing charges address Anaya.
First Nations leaders, local mayors, tribal council and Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations representatives attended the event in Dillon. photo: Sandra Cuffe
First Nations leaders, local mayors, tribal council and Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations representatives attended the event in Dillon. photo: Sandra Cuffe

DILLON, Sask. —United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya heard from leaders and elders in northern Saskatchewan during his visit to Buffalo River First Nation on Sunday morning.

Oil extraction, housing and education were on the agenda at the October 13 public event in Dillon, 800 kilometres north of Regina. But the focal point of the morning was the continued restricted access to traditional territory inside the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR).

“As a leader of the nation, we have a lot of concerns,” Buffalo River Dene Nation Chief Lance Byhette told Anaya and those gathered in the school gym. “The air weapons range is a big concern. It’s affected our livelihood, our way of living.”

Established in the 1950s during the Cold War, the CLAWR occupies 11,700 square kilometres in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and is now also home to oil and gas activity. Access is heavily restricted.

In 1994, a hunting party from Buffalo River Dene Nation was stopped by military personnel after bringing a moose back to camp. Of the five hunters, two men were charged with trespassing and unlawful hunting: James Sylvestre and Harry Catarat, the latter now deceased. The resulting legal battle over land use and hunting rights in Dene traditional territory continues.

“Back in 1994 when we were charged, I never thought it would take that long, but it’s coming on for 20 years now,” Sylvestre told the Media Co-op in an interview in Dillon after Anaya had left. “I’d like to know what’s going to be happening afterwards, regarding our hunting.”

Sylvestre wants children and youth to grow up being able to hunt freely in their territory. “We never gave up our land,” he said. “We shouldn’t be looking over our shoulders to see who’s going to be charged next.”

Joe Billette was also a member of the 1994 hunting party that resulted in charges. For the past 20 years, he has continued to hunt at Watapi Lake, inside the military-controlled territory.

“This fall we went there, last month. We shot nine moose over there,” said Billette. “We shot six inside, the rest outside. I left my stuff inside there now.”

Community members from Buffalo River Dene Nation and neighbouring hamlets began increasing their activities inside the bombing range boundary in early 2013. Dozens of people participated in organized expeditions into the CLAWR to set up camp and build cabins at Watapi Lake.

“That was our highway, from Dillon to Cold Lake. We share land, we share. That’s how we still do it today. The moose that we kill, we share,” said Billette. Now 75, he hopes the nation’s Treaty 10 hunting rights in its traditional territory will be recognized in his lifetime. “While I am still alive, I would like to see [something done].”

Catarat and Sylvestre had a favourable initial ruling acquitting them of all charges, but the acquittal was later overturned and the Supreme Court denied an appeal. Buffalo River Dene Nation has taken the issue to a number of UN bodies and forums over the past decade. A summary judgement hearing for a related claim filed in federal court is set for January 2014.

“We still continue to practice our way of life in the air weapons range, in Watapi [Lake], as the elder mentioned,” Byhette told the UN Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “We don’t ask for permission, nor do we contact Environment to say that we’re going in there. The people here – the community – are tired of waiting.”

Anaya will wrap up his nine-day whirlwind tour of Canada this afternoon, October 15, in Ottawa, where he will issue a statement with his preliminary findings. He will present a full report with his conclusions and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in 2014.

For further information about Indigenous resistance to the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, read No Home on the Range, published in The Dominion earlier this year.


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