First Nation declares sovereignty over Saskatchewan River Delta

Cumberland House Cree Nation has declared sovereignty over the largest inland freshwater river delta in North America.

"We see it as a protection of our homeland, and a utilization to benefit our people, to get them out of poverty," Chief Rene Chaboyer said.

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The Saskatchewan River Delta stretches over roughly one million hectares along the Saskatchewan and Manitoba border. Its declining vitality is threatening traditional ways of life.

Chaboyer wants to use the declaration as a springboard for greater control of the delta, spurring environmental protections and economic development. However, reversing any possible decline remains murky, he said.

"There's uncertainty there. We've had land users, trappers, fisherman, professionals come into our delta and try to figure out the solution to get it back to its natural state," he said.

"We've got to do something to save what's left."

The declaration comes roughly a year after he expressed concern over a lack of consultation on a massive provincial irrigation project at Lake Diefenbaker that he says could affect water flows into the delta. He said he remains hopeful for a solution that could satisfy all parties.

He wasn't alone in urging a seat at the table for the First Nation.

"For too long, [the delta] has been degraded by government policies and decisions that do not consider or include First Nations’ voices — and today that way of doing business comes to an end," Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Vice Chief Heather Bear said in a prepared statement.

Declaring sovereignty is a milestone, but there's a long way to go, noted Gord Vaadeland, executive director of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Saskatchewan, who is offering support for the First Nation's efforts.

The Lake Diefenbaker project remains in its early stages, but it's concerning for its potential "significant impacts" on the delta, he said.

The declaration of sovereignty is invitational – not confrontational – toward the province, he added.

The First Nation is in the process of developing a co-management model for the region. To raise its profile, it's also working toward a designation as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, a prepared statement noted.

The ecosystems in the Delta are home to several at-risk plants, birds, and mammals. It has also supported local hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering, ecotourism, medicine gathering, carbon sequestration, sustainable forestry practices and local employment, the statement added.

First Nations-led conservation efforts are unique, but a long-term vision could support economic opportunities around traditional ways of life, eco tourism and carbon storage, Vaadeland said.

Chaboyer said he hopes a push for greater control over his band's traditional lands may be an answer to those challenges.

"There's a lot at stake, and we're going to do what it takes to save it."

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