What’s really wrong with Dene land claims in the NWT (Slideshow included)

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Following is an anecdotal history of land claims in the NWT. I know there are people who know the facts better than reporters kept out of the meeting rooms and plied with press releases designed to put the best face on whatever opposite truth lay behind. All are welcome to correct me through the magic of email.

(The slideshow above features pictures from News/North photo archives. If you recognize people, send an email to valpy@nnsl.com and we will add their names to the caption and our files.)

After over a decade of negotiation, a meeting of leaders was held in Dettah in 1990 to sign a land claim that represented the Dene/Metis across the NWT. The federal government had included a clause that meant the treaties, along with any claim to ownership of the land, would be extinguished. The southern chiefs voted no, the Sahtu chiefs abstained, the Gwich’in chiefs said yes, let’s do the deal. Majority won, the land claim signing was stalled.

So the feds decided they had enough bargaining for land that wasn’t legally theirs and declared negotiations dead. They pulled funding and shut talks down. They also did something they had previously said they would not do — they would only deal with one big territorial-wide Dene/Metis land claim. It was expected the Dene Nation mandate would continue and more negotiations would continue for a final deal at a future date. Instead, the feds immediately started dealing first with the Gwich’in, then moved on to the Sahtu, not only dealing with the individual regions but dealing with the individual Sahtu communities. Complete fragmentation and reversal of a stated federal land claims policy dragged everything out for the next 30 years. With the Tlicho agreement signed in 2003, we still have Akaitcho and the Dehcho to go.

If striking that hodgepodge of deals down the Mackenzie Valley wasn’t agonizing enough, the feds insisted their little offspring, the GNWT, be at all the negotiation tables. I don’t mean to demean the territorial government but the federal government — Canada — signed the treaties in 1899 and 1921 and created the GNWT. Having three parties at the table rather than two could only drag negotiations out, as we have seen.

Now we have arrived at the real problem: Over the years, GNWT bureaucrats have operated on the idea that whatever powers and land the Dene governments get from the feds is a potential invasion of their turf. They resisted and urged their masters in the cabinet, if not the assembly, to resist. That’s why over the years we have witnessed the unfortunate spectacle of strong Dene leaders becoming meek MLAs and ministers harnessed to the GNWT mindset, forgetting who they represent.

The reality is, we are the Northwest Territories. The stronger each territory is — Akaitcho Territory, Tlicho Territory, Dehcho Territory, Sahtu Territory, Gwich’in Territory, Inuvialuit Territory — the stronger the Northwest Territories. As well, business people who have resisted the strengths of these territories (land claims) fail to understand that Northern companies are the go-to-suppliers for all the services that will be needed, not only to operate but to develop the raw resources they have, if that’s what they want to do.

History demonstrates once the Indigenous governments get control of their land and resources, they want to do business. The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation has more companies than I can list here. Go have a look: https://www.irc.inuvialuit.com/business/inuvialuit-business-list-ibl. The Gwich’in, Sahtu, Dehcho, Akaitcho and Tlicho all have growing business interests. Together they represent a formidable economic force.

So, to all you candidates winning the upcoming territorial election, bring about real change by pulling out of land claim negotiations and seconding their very able negotiators to the Akaitcho and Dehcho sides of the tables. Get busy building the territory the way it should have been done in the first place. Precious time has been wasted maintaining the status quo, stagnation looms large.

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