You might not have noticed it with the United States of America tearing itself apart but over the weekend, but Premier Jason Kenney sent out an official press release alongside the requisite social media messages celebrating the 90th anniversary of the theft of all of Alberta’s resource wealth from Alberta’s original inhabitants.
He wrote “90 years ago, the Natural Resource Transfer Act [NRTA] transferred full control over natural resources to the four Western provinces. This set the stage for the development of Alberta’s energy industry and all the prosperity that has flowed from it since.”
But what Kenney did not write, allude to or share with his followers was the negative ramifications this transfer had on the original peoples of this territory.
Twenty-five short years after becoming a province, and 54 years after the entering into Treaty 6 at Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and others in government undertook the task of decentralizing resource management. Unilaterally, the Canadian government shifted resources they laid claim to through mechanisms like Treaty and Terra Nullius, to the provincial authorities. Save for sections 10-12 which deal with Indians, a young Canada endowed a younger Alberta with immense riches. The hundreds of billions of dollars generated by the oil and gas industry never flowed to Indigenous people but instead into the hands of private corporations and a provincial government indifferent to the Indigenous people who have lived here since well before the first settler showed up.
Indigenous people were never consulted and couldn’t even hire legal counsel to oppose this change in law. In fact Indigenous people were placed into the same category as land and resources in this agreement. And it was still illegal for Indigenous people to gather for cultural purposes, a continuation of the archaic Pass System born from the 1885 Resistance.
However, numerous Supreme Court cases since 1951 such as Calder, Delgamuukw, Mikisew and Tsilhqot'in, have not only recognized that Indigenous title exists, but in some cases was never extinguished. Further, in cases where the Crown alleges that it was extinguished, this would only be possible if the Crown, and provinces had fully lived up to their Treaty obligations. They haven’t.
When we examine the 2018-19 Public Accounts of Alberta, by their own admission, the United Conservative Party government recognizes they are party to 22 “Aboriginal” [sic] claims. Of these 22 claims, 10 have specified dollar figures in the filings totalling a staggering $94 Billion. The other 12 claims do not have dollar amounts attached, but taking into account interest and legal fees, it is not unreasonable to estimate Alberta owes Indigenous people close to $200 billion dollars. Adding to the utter hypocrisy of the Premier, the report also states that there are four outstanding Treaty Land Entitlement claims which “... the Province may have an obligation under the Natural Resource Transfer Agreement.” So by their own disclosure, the Province recognizes these liabilities, reports them and goes as far as to calculate what the costs would be if they were held responsible.
So why is this important? Well, if COVID-19 has shown us one thing, it is how razor thin the margins of error are in this province’s budget processes. A few short months of shut-down and low oil prices are going to have a massive detrimental effect on the economy, striking vital blows to the province’s already shaky revenue stream. A stream which was forecasted to be $50 billion in 2020-21 pre-COVID. A stream which by all accounts, would take the province four years to cover all monies owed to First Nations, and would no doubt bankrupt Alberta.
These figures also fail to mention Metis settlements and the rights contained there-in, which would only compound Alberta’s delinquency. With all this in perspective, it is not surprising that Kenney would fail to mention Indigenous people in his celebration of the NRTA and its discriminatory policy application. Why would you want to include your debtors in a celebration of how much money you’ve made, especially when it is not yours.
But I digress, let’s all celebrate the 90-year-old resource theft. Let’s remember the people that were left out of their fair share of wealth in this province. Let’s gather around the $1 billion Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation (which we talk about on this Progress Report podcast) and its promise to allow the original land owners to participate in resource wealth. After all, the other viable option on the table is Alberta and Canada settling their Treaty debts and giving Indigenous people what they have been waiting for since Treaty 6 was signed 144 years ago. A move that would signify what real reconciliation is, reflect that governments know of the wrongs that have been committed and allow us all to fully benefit from the resources that we have always responsibly managed.
Or, we can continue to live in a fantasy world where the West was won, all the Supreme Court decisions in favor of Indigenous people are simply rhetorical gestures and Indigenous people aren’t far poorer, die younger, and fill this country’s prisons despite being only a fraction of the total population. Let’s all join the dance on reconciliation’s shallow grave.
Rob Houle is from Wapsewsipi (Swan River) First Nation in Treaty 8 territory in what is known today as Alberta. He has been involved in politics since graduating from the University of Alberta and has married into tribes in Treaty 7. During his career he has explored the relationships between past and current governments and the First Peoples of Turtle Island.