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Federal Justice Minister David Lametti set off a firestorm among conservative western premiers when he spoke at an Assembly of First Nations meeting last week in Ottawa.

At the meeting, Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte from the Prince Albert Grand Council asked the justice minister to rescind the Natural Resources Transfer Act, which gives Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan jurisdiction over natural resources within their borders.

Lametti told the chiefs he was committed to “looking at” the act, adding: “It won’t be uncontroversial is what I’ll say with a bit of a smile.”

The justice minister’s remarks did not go over well. Days later, the three conservative western premiers — Danielle Smith of Alberta, Scott Moe of Saskatchewan and Heather Stefanson of Manitoba — released a joint statement condemning Lametti’s comments and demanding the prime minister respond.

“The prime minister needs to immediately retract these dangerous and divisive comments by his justice minister,” the statement reads.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shot back, saying Lametti’s marks were about living up to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada has enshrined in law.

“[That's] something that, unfortunately, the Prairie premiers have not taken seriously, and they are instead trying to elevate fears that have absolutely no grounding in truth,” Trudeau said.

Here’s what you need to know about the Natural Resources Transfer Act and why it’s a point of contention for Ottawa, the provinces and Indigenous nations.

What is the Natural Resources Transfer Act?

The Natural Resources Transfer Act is, in fact, three separate pieces of legislation passed in Ottawa in 1930. The acts handed over the control of natural resources like gold mines, lumber and oil and gas to Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Ottawa and some western provinces are feuding over recent comments made by Justice Minister David Lametti. Here's all you need to know about the Natural Resources Transfer Act and why it matters. #Indigenous #FirstNations #cdnpoli

With these three acts, Ottawa gave up its power over Crown land in those provinces, which the federal government had retained since purchasing the Prairies from the Hudson Bay Company in 1870, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. Manitoba joined Canada in 1870 when the federal government bought the land, while Alberta and Saskatchewan joined in 1905.

Until 1930, the federal government retained its jurisdiction over the land and resources to accomplish the national goal of quickly populating the provinces with settlers.

“This became a popular grievance in the West, where federal control appeared to relegate the provinces to second-class status in Confederation and to result in the subordination of regional concerns to national goals,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Even today, the tension between the federal government and western provinces remains. Last year, Alberta passed its Alberta Sovereignty act, while the Saskatchewan First Act became law last month.

These laws give the provinces greater power to deem federal policies and initiatives harmful or unconstitutional to the provinces, according to First Peoples Law. The acts also give the provinces ways to fight Ottawa through measures like altering regulations, launching court challenges and issuing directives to provincial organizations to disregard federal legislation.

When Alberta’s version of the law passed, Trudeau said the federal government would not engage in the political fight Alberta was looking for.

Why is this law coming up now?

Hardlotte’s question at the AFN meeting wasn’t unexpected. Western chiefs have been calling for a renewed discussion around the Natural Resources Transfer Act with increased urgency since the Alberta Sovereignty and Saskatchewan First acts became law.

Last December, the AFN passed an emergency resolution to oppose the two pieces of autonomy legislation seeking to reassert provincial authority over natural resources. The worry is that the provinces will override treaty rights, which remain a matter between the federal government and Indigenous nations.

“It’s unconstitutional; Alberta doesn’t have that right to change laws because we signed treaties with the Crown,” Randy Ermineskin, chief of Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta, said in an interview with Canada’s National Observer at the time.

Alberta didn’t exist when treaties were signed, which sets the stage for jurisdictional battles around the transfer acts, Ermineskin added.

Hardlotte echoed the concern last week when speaking to Lametti.

“It affects our treaty right, of course, and with the [Saskatchewan First Act] that we hear about,” he said, “it’s to do with natural resources, Indian natural resources.”

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative