Three Mi’kmaq grandmothers are trying to move the dial forward when it comes to the way the justice system interacts with Indigenous peoples.
On Monday, the trio pushed for recognition in Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court that the province rests on unceded Mi’kmaw territory before proceedings in their case continue — a recognition that did not verbally take place in the courtroom at the time.
Kuku’wis Wowkis, Kiju Muin and Thunderbird Swooping Down Woman are accused of violating a court-ordered injunction against trespassing on land owned by Alton Gas in Fort Ellis, N.S., during protests over the natural gas storage project the company wants to build there.
Mi’kmaw attorney Michael McDonald said he wanted the land acknowledgment to take place early in the proceedings so they could continue in a respectful manner, adding that such recognition could have a ripple effect on other cases involving Indigenous peoples.
“It would change the way the laws are forced upon Mi’kmaw people,” he told reporters outside the courtroom.
“It would be a recognition that we’re a sovereign nation, that we have our own laws. It’s already been recognized in previous court proceedings but it hasn’t been officially recognized in today’s proceedings.”
McDonald filed notice of a constitutional issue in the case, which seeks to establish that the women were occupying the project site within their rights under Mi’kmaw law, because the project rests on unceded territory.
He further requested that all Alton Gas activities cease until the constitutional issue is resolved, but that request has not been met.
Counsellors for Alton Gas, who declined to comment on Monday, are moving to have materials filed by McDonald in September — some of which pertain to that constitutional issue — struck from the case on procedural grounds.
That matter will be attended to when the case resumes later this year, after which the constitutional issue will be raised.
“We feel that until these proceedings are done, Alton Gas shouldn’t be doing anything… That’s what they’re trying to strike out right now,” McDonald explained.
“If we’re going to move forward in a good way, that’s what should have been done.”
Reached by email, a spokesperson for Alton Gas said that, “Alton has responded appropriately to all the filings made to date by the lawyer for the three respondents.”
Lori Maclean did not answer questions about whether the company has had any issues with trespassing since the court case began, or whether it has a position on the claim that its project rests on unceded lands.
“Our starting point for all our activity is clear: No harm can come to the Shubenacadie River estuary or the fish there from Alton construction and operations,” she wrote.
“The Alton Project will help provide Nova Scotians with affordable and reliable natural gas year-round.”
Kuku’wis Wowkis, Kiju Muin and Thunderbird Swooping Down Woman occupied the Alton Gas site in April as part of an ongoing Indigenous and environmental campaign to protect the land and water from developments that could harm the ecosystem.
Proceedings against protesters occupying the site began with Dale Poulette and Rachael Greenland-Smith, but the names of the grandmothers have since been added to the documents.
Alton Gas plans to use water from the Shubenacadie River to create large underground storage caverns, but says there’s ample evidence that its brining process will fall within levels that are safe for the environment.
It adds that Mik’maq groups have been engaged on the project since 2006, and have contributed to an independent science review and two ecological knowledge studies.
The grandmothers will appear in court on Dec. 16 and 17, when a judge will decide whether to strike the September filings from the proceedings.
If eventually found to have been in contempt of the injunction, they could face fines and court costs.