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Sask. artifact rules violate international law, says professor

The failure to notify First Nations of a rare artifact discovery in central Saskatchewan violates international law, says an academic.

Edgar Baptiste speaks to farmers, First Nations leaders and others following a pipe ceremony west of Biggar, Sask. on Monday. Artifacts up to 10,000 years old were recently found there, including a piece of volcanic obsidian stone not native to Saskatchewan. (Don Somers/CBC)

The failure to notify First Nations of a rare artifact discovery in central Saskatchewan violates international law, says an academic.

The bigger problem is the province’s outdated legislation, says Roger Petry, coordinator of the United Nations-affiliated Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development.

“Ultimately, the issues with your case exemplify substantial flaws in the Province’s current legislation related to public notification and protection of heritage sites,” Petry states in a letter obtained by CBC News. It was sent this week to the Rural Municipality of Winslow and copied to Premier Scott Moe and others.

The RM was scheduled to begin construction of a gravel road 150 kilometres west of Saskatoon next week, despite the discovery of Indigenous artifacts dating back as far as 10,000 years along the route.

The RM put the project on hold for one month following mounting opposition from First Nations, the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society and others.

First Nations leaders applauded the RM and called it a good first step, but many worry the project could still go ahead later this summer and agree the provincial legislation needs to change.

The legislation hasn’t been updated since 1980 and doesn’t require notification of First Nations when Indigenous artifacts are discovered.

“We were only a few miles away from this discovery, but we may as well have been a million miles,” former Red Pheasant Cree Nation Chief Sheldon Wuttunee said.

Wuttunee was troubled by the statements made Thursday by a Saskatchewan government official.

Candace Caswell of the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport was asked repeatedly why First Nations were not involved. Caswell said that’s left up to the RM and that her department’s priority is following the provincial legislation.

“It’s the rules and the processes we have in place right now,” she said.

Wuttunee said he was saddened by Caswell’s repeated use of the term “captured” to describe the First Nations artifacts uncovered at the site.

“The provincial government can make excuses about hiding behind legislation, but there’s just no place for that kind of attitude in Saskatchewan any more,” Wuttunee said.

Saskatchewan Archaeological Society executive director Tomasin Playford agreed. Earlier this week, she said failing to tell First Nations about the artifacts and building the road may be legal, but it’s wrong.

“I think there’s a moral obligation,” Playford said. “This is the material culture likely of descendants living today. They have a right to know about the site and they should be involved in any kind of decision-making process.”

People gathered at the site of a planned road project where archaeologists uncovered Indigenous artifacts up to 10,000 years old. (Don Somers/CBC)

Petry, also a University of Regina professor, said he’ll be sharing updates on the case with more than 160 of their partner institutes around the world. Indigenous people in other countries are facing similar issues, he said.

“The significance of this find means that proceeding with a road project through the site is problematic on many levels,” he wrote.

Petry noted Canada signed on to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. A central element of that agreement is Indigenous cultural preservation. He said it applies to all levels of government in Canada, including municipalities.

The academic said it’s just one of the international conventions requiring Canada to involve First Nations in the preservation of artifacts and other cultural items.

“Culture contributes to poverty reduction and paves the way for a human-centred, inclusive and equitable development,” states the letter, quoting from a United Nations document.

Petry said the RM and the whole province could benefit from partnering with First Nations to preserve the artifacts and the site. He said it could be an invaluable educational tool and offered to help.

“Best wishes in your deliberations,” Petry wrote. “Please let us know if we can be of further assistance.”

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