Whitecap Dakota Nation signs historic self-government treaty with Canada

4 minute read
03 May 2023

On May 3, 2023, Whitecap Dakota Nation and Canada signed "A Self-Government Treaty Recognizing the Whitecap Dakota Nation / Wapaha Ska Dakota Oyate." This Self-Government Treaty, the culmination of decades of work and negotiations beginning in 2009, is the first ever stand-alone, treaty-protected self-government agreement in Canada, and the first Indigenous self-government agreement in the province of Saskatchewan. The Treaty is expected to become effective on September 1, 2023.

Crucially, the Treaty recognizes Whitecap as an "Aboriginal people of Canada" within the meaning of s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. It also recognizes Whitecap's inherent and constitutionally-protected right of self-government, and provides treaty (and therefore constitutional) protection to Whitecap's jurisdiction over a wide range of matters affecting its lands and people.

The Dakota/Lakota are the only Prairie First Nations that are not parties to any of the historical numbered treaties, having been systematically denied treaty rights and recognition by Canada on the false premise that they were "American Indians", not "British Indians". Among other impacts of this classification, the Dakota were stripped of their vast traditional territories and herded onto tiny reserves that were and remain a small fraction (by a factor of eight) of what surrounding First Nations secured under treaty. These poor-quality plots of land were also a fraction of what non-Indigenous settlers received at little or no cost, carved from Dakota territory.

The Dakota, however, were deemed sufficiently "British Indian" to be subjected to the Indian Act, the unlawful reserve pass system, residential schools, and the long list of harmful laws and policies visited upon Indigenous peoples in Canada. Denied the recognition and rights in virtue of their Indigeneity, they were nevertheless subjected to all the indignities and harms devised by government because of their Indigeneity.

This historical injustice continued for over 150 years, with Canada refusing to acknowledge the place of the Dakota in Canadian history, until, at a pipe ceremony in Whitecap Dakota First Nation on April 13, 2023, Canada at last recognized the rightful place of the Dakota as "Aboriginal peoples of Canada" with corresponding rights.

In addition to enshrining this historic recognition, the Treaty implements Whitecap's right of self-government by moving Whitecap out from under the Indian Act, giving it increased control over the decisions affecting its community. Among other things, the Treaty recognizes that Whitecap has jurisdiction and law-making powers on its lands over governance, land, natural resources, membership, cultural matters, language revitalization and preservation, education, financial management and accountability, health and social services. The Treaty enhances Whitecap's ability to build on its success in creating economic opportunities and improving community well-being for the benefit of its members and neighbouring communities.

Gowling WLG has been honoured to advise and work alongside Whitecap Dakota Nation in negotiating its Self-Government Treaty and in securing Canada's recognition of Whitecap as an Aboriginal people of Canada. The Gowling WLG team includes Maxime Faille and Aaron Christoff.

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