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Thunderchild administration seeks injunction against members protesting oil activity

Grassroots Thunderchild First Nation members occupying sundance grounds vow to stop seismic testing

by Sandra Cuffe

Prayer flags and ceremonial cloth were strewn on the ground after oil industry contractors drove their equipment through the area, according to protesters.
Prayer flags and ceremonial cloth were strewn on the ground after oil industry contractors drove their equipment through the area, according to protesters.

The fate of the Thunderchild First Nation sundance grounds and the women and other band members who have been actively defending them may be decided in court this week. The Thunderchild administration is seeking an injunction against grassroots members protesting oil industry seismic exploration on and near the ceremonial area on reserve, located roughly 100 kilometres northwest of North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

Grassroots band members set up a protest camp on the sundance grounds in early August, in response to blasting, drilling and other activity onsite. The Thunderchild First Nation administration is now taking legal action in the hopes that the 'Sundance 3D 2013' seismic program work being carried out by Lorrnel Consulting on behalf of Tonare Energy can continue without anyone standing in the way.

The occupation of the sundance grounds will continue regardless of the outcome of the August 16 injunction application hearing, says Eldon Okanee, a Thunderchild First Nation member.

“We’re prepared to take a stand,” Okanee told the Media Co-op in a telephone interview. “You cannot have oil development at the expense of our sacred grounds.”

Okanee says the majority of band members were unaware of the exploration plans in and around the sundance grounds, where ceremonies have been held for generations. Some participants in a recent ceremony on the grounds noticed markers around the site. They were removed, but not long after the ceremony ended, a seismic crew arrived, he said.

But what really sparked awareness and indignation was the desecration of prayer flags and ceremonial cloth, torn up and strewn on the ground when contractors drove their equipment through the site.

“We were really shocked about that,” said Okanee. “The ceremonial cloth is where the prayers go.”

Women have organized and led the action since day one, gathering on the sundance grounds to prevent any further seismic testing or desecration in the area.

“The detonations were right within the sundance grounds,” said Okanee. A grassroots occupation has put a stop to the industry activity in the area for now. “We’ve been occupying the sundance grounds,” he said.

Thunderchild First Nation chief Delbert Wapass and council approved exploration activity on reserve lands by Tonare Energy, which received an Exploratory License from the Thunderchild band council on July 4, 2013. The Reserve 115B lands in question were originally designated for surrender to the Crown by Thunderchild in April 2005 for the purpose of oil and gas exploration under the Indian Oil and Gas Act, according to documents obtained by the Media Co-op. The First Nation owns an equity interest in Tonare, the Canadian affiliate of Kansas-based Kinley Exploration.

Participants in the occupation are not necessarily opposed to oil development in general, but vow to stop it on the sundance grounds. The current situation has caused divisions within the community, according to Okanee. Some people refrain from speaking out because they fear repercussions, such as losing jobs tied to the band council, he said. The elected leadership’s decision to take members to court and file for an injunction has also thrown people off guard.

“I think a lot of people are surprised,” said Okanee, referring to the legal action. He said the grassroots organizers have invited the Thunderchild First Nation chief and council to sit down and dialogue, but that no such meeting has yet taken place. Instead, band officials filed for an injunction. “A lot of people are upset at the lack of respect,” he said.

The injunction is being sought against three named band members and other unnamed individuals. The application will be heard by the Court of Queen's Bench in Saskatoon (520 Spadina Crescent East), on Friday, August 16, at 11am.

Whatever the court rules, the grassroots members involved with the occupation of the sundance grounds vow to stand their ground.

“If there is [an injunction], then our group is adamant that we will not leave,” Okanee told the Media Co-op. “They’ll have to arrest us.”

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