Court blocks free legal support for Beaver Lake Cree

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Canada’s ‘justice system’ strikes again. The Canadian and Alberta governments have successfully prevented the Beaver Lake Cree Nation from obtaining free legal representation in their fight against the tar sands.

From RAVEN – Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs
June 28, 2011

On Monday, June 27th, an Alberta judge turned down an application for a team of UK lawyers to work for free to assist the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in its massive and costly fight to prevent the tar sands industries from destroying their traditional lands and decimating the animals and fish that sustain them.

In issuing his judgment, Mr. Justice Yamauchi opted to follow the government’s line of thinking – that Michael Mansfield, Q.C. is not a member of the Alberta Law Society and therefore does not have the right to appear in an Alberta court room. An unfortunate and rather narrow-minded decision.

Michael Mansfield said he is deeply disappointed in Canada’s justice system. “It’s hugely disappointing when a court cannot see its way to exercise its inherent jurisdiction to permit lawyers from the UK willing to act pro bono rights of audience. The case raises enormous issues of local, national and international importance. The environment and the way of life of First Nations living in Alberta is being dramatically affected by the activities of multinational oil companies, banking institutions and government agencies. They have already lost hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of land, had water resources depleted and contaminated, air polluted, and wildlife decimated.

“This project which has been escalating since 1967 is the largest of its kind in the world and has repercussions for all of us with regard to climate change and global warming. The Cree nation in particular has taken a stand against a vast array of vested interests, who wish to continue this exploitation in the name of dirty oil. They are entitled to all the help they can garner particularly as they are a vulnerable community with limited resources.

“It is peculiarly ironic that this decision should occur in the very week that Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge arrive in Canada, because it is the Prince’s forbears who pledged to ensure that there would be “no forced interference with the First Nation’s mode of life” (treaties 1876 and 1899 between the Queen and the First Nations). The Royal Family has been repeatedly requested to address this promise which has been seriously violated and this is another opportunity for this matter to be raised.”

Mr. Mansfield offered his services – and those of his team at Tooks Chambers – because the small band at the front line of the fight to curtail the ecologically disastrous expansion of the tar sands industries is – in legal terms – impecunious. In other words, they are financially tapped. Not surprising given the band’s 900 members have already paid more than half a million dollars to negotiate through the legal mire put up by two levels of government.

The court hearing to see if Mr. Mansfield could work for the Beaver Lake Cree is just one example of the hurdles the band constantly faces. Canada and Alberta fought the issue rather than it being a simple procedural request. One might ponder WHY? Would Canada and Alberta have fought so hard against an offer of free work from a lesser legal team? Does Mr. Mansfield’s status as one of the leading defenders in the UK mean he is not entitled to assist with the delivery of justice in Canada?

Mr. Mansfield had offered to represent the Beaver Lake Cree in this October’s pre-trial motion – another legal roadblock set up by Canada and Alberta. After BLCN filed its original legal action in 2008, the next usual step is to get a statement of defence; however, Canada and Alberta filed a motion to strike (read: kill) the case outright. Their motion calls the Beaver Lake Cree’s claim all kinds of interesting things like ‘vexatious’ and ‘frivolous’. In fact, the law is on the side of Beaver Lake Cree Nation, and this is Canada and Alberta’s attempt to see that the case never gets to court at all.

RAVEN is a Canadian-based non-profit with charitable status. Its mission is to assist Aboriginal peoples within Canada in protecting or restoring their traditional lands and resources, and addressing critical environmental challenges such as global warming by strategically enforcing their Constitutional rights through the courts in response to unsustainable settlement or industrial exploitation supported by the State.