The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) is taking the federal government to court in an effort to protect the treaty right to hunt.
FSIN First Vice Chief Greg Ahenakew made the announcement June 7, saying the FSIN planned to challenge Bill C-68, the Firearms Act, which requires gun owners to register their weapons.
According to Ahenakew, the FSIN is taking advantage of a "window of opportunity" provided by a previous court decision regarding Bill C-68, in which the Alberta Supreme Court ruled the bill wasn't unconstitutional because the federal government's right to protect public safety outweighed the province's jurisdiction over regulation of private property.
"The federal government won the case against the provinces . . . and it was justified by the need for public safety," explained Ahenakew.
"The Supreme Court said 'This is a public safety issue', and what they called the POGG clause - Peace Order and Good Government - and therefore, it kind of superceded private property, because it was in the public interest.
"They left open a window of opportunity because the FSIN was the only organization to intervene in the case, and have standing, and we argued that it wasn't justified because it is our treaty right. The Supreme Court simply said, 'Okay, if you believe you have the treaty right, and it's been infringed upon, then bring a case before us. This provincial case is not the right place to argue the treaty right, but come back, and we will hear your case.'"
The FSIN accepted the invitation and launched a lawsuit on behalf of the First Nations of Saskatchewan.
"We obviously feel Bill C-68 infringes on our treaty right to hunt and to possess and purchase ammunition, and the ancillary right to own a firearm," Ahenakew said. "I'm not talking about illegal firearms, I'm talking about rifles.
"Unless something's changed, the way I understand it, the RCMP will decide, on a case-by-case basis, decide whether or not the confiscation of weapons for hunting purposes will actually take place," Ahenakew said.
"We all agree with public safety, but when it comes to exercising your right by your preferred means, it's constitutional to hunt. Our right is protected in Section 35, and we believe a part of that right is owning a firearm."
The FSIN is not the only First Nation organization that feels this way about C-68. Some of the very people who are having to enforce this new law are not excited about this prospect. In fact, there is concern for many officers they will be caught in the proverbial crossfire.
"[First Nations police officers] have a special problem with the firearm bill in that a great many First Nation officers work alone in fly-in First Nation territories," said Art King, president of the First Nations Police Association of Canada.
"We feel the law has not taken into consideration their safety so we have some deep concerns there that hopefully are going to be addressed properly."
King also recognizes the reason why so many First Nations people dislike C-68.
"Traditionally, First Nations people have always had the right," said King.
"In fact, it's an inherited right to hunt and fish. And the long gun is not a sporting item for First Nation people, it's part of their way of life, a part of their culture, and in some cases, a part of their employment. We do believe that Bill C-68 should address these problems directly and separately as in regards to First Nations people, especially First Nations people living on First Nation territories."
"We believe that right is protected to own a firearm," said Ahenakew, in reference to Canada's constitution. "I'm not going to say without restriction, but to be required to license it, because clearly, the Federal government has infringed on what we believe is our right, and they have done it without consultation with First Nations people. And they are required to consult, and justify, any infringement on our Aboriginal or inherent treaty rights, an of course a Constitutional right, which our treaties are."
Another problem arising for First Nations people since C-68 was put in place, according to Ahenakew, is not being able to buy ammunition.
"We cannot purchase ammunition simply because you cannot pick up ammunition without a possession only license. After June 30, unless anything changes, the RCMP, who are going to enforce the law, and not the province, can confiscate rifles."
What alternatives could there be for First Nations people? According to the FSIN, before C-68 was put in place, there had been some discussion about an alternative for First Nations people, but according to Ahenakew, the talks fell through.
"We discussed with the Canadian Firearms Center, and they agreed that it was possible,"said Ahenakew, "but because of public pressure from certain quarters, they pulled back on what we had assumed was an agreement, and that was a status card would be good enough I.D. until we worked something out. But they didn't agree in the end, and that's why we're in court."
The fact that yet again, a change in law by the government was made, directly affecting many First Nation people across the country, without any input from anyone from the First Nations community, is why many First Nations people in Canada are upset.
"Because we filed a statement of claim, we haven't closed doors on discussions," said Ahenakew, quickly adding, "Not negotiations, discussions, with Justice Canada."
And in Ontario, where the head office of the First Nations Police Association is located, a similar consultation process is going on, according to King.
"I've been meeting with the [Justice] minister, and I've now been appointed to sit on the gun user committee, which is a committee that helps develop laws that will be put into place prior to them becoming legislation. So hopefully, that will give us an opportunity to draft some more law or some law that's reasonably in place that will assist First Nation people, and in paricular the First Nation police officers."
So, how long might it be before changes are made to the Firearms Act, Bill C-68, and what are First Nations people supposed to do until then?
"Obviously, it's going to go to the Supreme Court," said Ahenakew.
"First Federal Court, then the Federal Court of Appeal, then the Supreme Court. Provided the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, I would probably think in the neighborhood of five years, so it's a big question of what do we do in the meantime?, which I'm not prepared to answer yet."