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Gwich'in Tribal Council cuts assembly seats
Devolution still a contentious issue almost a year since council signed final agreement

Shawn Giilck
Northern News Services
Published Friday, August 23, 2013

The Gwich'in Tribal Council is heading for a future of fiscal cutbacks and belt-tightening, starting with the slashing the number of delegates who will attend future assemblies.

NNSL photo/graphic

At the Gwich'in annual general assembly last week, Chief Hebert Blake of the Inuvik Native Band says the Gwich'in Tribal Council needs to approach the devolution process carefully. - Shawn Giilck/NNSL photo

The 30th-annual annual general assembly was truncated from three days to two in accordance with the emphasis on fiscal frugality. While most of the 100 delegates gathered at the Midnight Sun Complex in Inuvik agreed on the need for cutbacks, the issue also sparked the most intense debate at the assembly – at least in the open sessions. Much of the assembly, which took place from Aug. 20 to 22, was held behind closed doors and was only open to Gwich'in representatives and members, including the financial updates.

While no specific information was released, Herbert Blake, the chief of the Inuvik Native Band, readily acknowledged the GTC has “challenges” ahead of it.

There had been rumours circulating at the assembly the organization was running a large deficit, however Blake said that wasn't the case.

“I don't think we're in a deficit,” Blake said.

He said while the council is facing financial difficulties, much of the financial reports concerned plans for development and economic spinoffs from the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, which is still nowhere near a reality.

“Sometimes things can go sideways on you in business,” he said.

A motion that sparked debate involved cost-cutting measures by limiting the number of delegates attending the meeting. Amongst the proposals in the motion was the elimination of two spots reserved for Yellowknife and Whitehorse representatives. Those seats at the assembly have only been established in the past few years, and Yellowknife delegate Christine McLeod made it clear they wouldn't be giving them up without a fight.

“You can't just take them away,” she said. “It's not right.”

One delegate took issue with assembly members not being aware of the provision ahead of time, and that also provoked criticism of the GTC leadership for not doing a proper consultation.

Gwich'in Tribal Council President Robert Alexie said the assembly seats weren't guaranteed under the terms of the Gwich'in Settlement Agreement, but he also said 50 per cent of the Gwich'in population live outside of the designated settlement area, which includes Inuvik, Aklavik, Tsiigehtchic and Fort McPherson.

“The land claim speaks of four communities only,” he said. “It's in the bylaws, but we're trying to change it.”

The debate over the issue lasted almost an hour, with a clear majority of people speaking during the discussion against cutting the seats.

After a break to amend the motion, the assembly approved slashing the Yellowknife and Whitehorse seats to one delegate each from two. The other communities will also see reductions from 12 delegates to seven.

The need to control the budget was balanced with news that over the next four years or so, the GTC could expect approximately $7.5 million in revenues from the devolution process. With the transfer of control over lands and resources to the territorial government from the federal government expecting to take effect in April 2014, the GNWT will receive 50 per cent of resource royalties in the NWT. Of that 50 per cent, 25 per cent will be divided among the aboriginal groups in the territory who have signed on to the devolution agreement.

Patrick Tomlinson, the director of intergovernmental affairs for the GTC, provided a report with those figures listed. He said the $7.5 million was a conservative estimate of what the organization could expect with increased powers over resource management being handed to the GNWT.

While that was welcomed as good news by the assembly, some members were lukewarm over the process. Blake was among them. He said he didn't want the chance to receive and invest the money from the resource revenues to overwhelm the need to manage the land responsibly and according to tradition.

“We're comfortable with where we're going (with devolution)," said Alexie.

The issue has been a contentious one for the Gwich'in people. The GTC had launched a court case against the territorial and federal governments over the devolution process a few years ago. That lawsuit argued the Gwich'in people had been properly consulted. Following the GTC dropping its lawsuit, the council signed the final agreement in October 2012.

In his comments, Alexie reminded the assembly that decision was made after the council heard from the legal counsel handling the case that there was less than a 50 per cent chance of winning the lawsuit.

The annual assembly is held to provide direction to the Gwich'in Tribal Council and to provides updates on pressing issues, as well as a forum to debate them.

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