Housing. Health. Infrastructure. Land claim negotiations. Meaningful consultation.
Those issues were top of mind as Indigenous leaders laid out their priorities with the new crop of MLAs in the Tree of Life Friendship Centre on Thursday. Over the course of the day, the leaders gave the new MLAs crash courses on their individual nations and communities, often aiming to break with some of the lingering frustration from past governments.
“Things got to change,” Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya told the assembled MLAs, adding that the “status quo is no longer acceptable.”
His remarks were often repeated, urging action on land claim negotiations, health issues and warning of looming challenges: climate change, expanded healthcare costs of an aging population, in addition to a bevy of other issues facing the new and returning MLAs.
“I’m certainly glad I’m not in your seat,” Yakeleya joked with the MLAs.
Among the most important issues, however, he said was the protection of the territory’s water as it heads into the future.
Gwich’in Grand Chief Bobbi Jo Greenland-Morgan followed-up later, also calling for action on self-government negotiations, while noting persistent under funding of treaty efforts.
“We don’t want token consultations,” she said. “We want meaningful consultations.”
She demanded the discontinuation of “band aid solutions” – especially on housing. For her, that included building new units, not replacements for those fallen into disrepair. She also voiced the need for more support on language revitalization as the Gwich’in Tribal Council seeks to expand its speaker base, which numbered 375 people as of the 2011 census.
Most of them are over 40 and live around the Beaufort Delta, leaving it one of the most endangered Indigenous languages in Canada, according to the Gwich’in Tribal Council’s Department of Cultural Heritage.
Other leaders, like Duane Smith, Chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, appeared weary as the meeting took place.
“We’ve tried this in the past with little success,” he told the MLAs seated around him.
He said “trust really fell of the table” with previous government efforts, and that the leaders had already been raising their rights for 35 years as they sat for Thursday’s talks.
Referencing the United Nations’ Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples – which Canada has not officially implemented – Smith demanded that the gathered governments be involved in the legislation affecting them.
He added other concerns: for example, a contract in Inuvik going to a firm in British Columbia (“a slap in the face of the [region’s] two land claims,” he said) and the current status of legal aid in his represented communities (“a farce”).
Meanwhile, Doug Lamalice of K’atl’odeeche First Nation, brought up economic concerns, saying development was good, but that it had to be done with “Indigenous inclinations,” he said.
Hanging over all the talks, however, was concerns with stalled efforts over negotiations, and Yakeleya’s statement: “time to settle (the) land claims.”