With only months to go before the revised NWT Wildlife Act could be set to pass, Dene leaders from the Deh Cho region are worried it will curtail or even extinguish their treaty rights.At a conference on the Hay River Reserve last week, K’atlodeeche First Nation (KFN) Chief Roy Fabian was joined by Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus and chiefs from across the region, expressing concern the new act gives preference to settled land claims over treaty rights.
“We have treaty rights to our land. Canada recognized us as a sovereign people, and we never extinguished our sovereignty,” Fabian said. “For them to try to pass legislation on wildlife without identifying our treaty rights and explaining how our rights are protected in the act – they protect all the new land claim agreements, but they don’t identify anything about the treaty – that’s the issue we’re having.”
The new act is intended to protect wildlife populations in the NWT and replace the current act, which was written in the 1970s. It has been in the works for over a decade, and was withdrawn last summer in the face of opposition from aboriginal groups.
Approximately 20 leaders and community members were at the conference on the Hay River Reserve for three days of discussions about how the new act will impact treaty rights.
The two major issues raised were concern the new act will strip power from First Nations that haven’t signed a land claims agreement, and confusion over what type of identification potential hunters would be required to carry.
Fabian said he is afraid the new act will allow anyone with a general hunting license (GHL) to hunt on his nation’s treaty-protected land without getting permission from him.
“We’re the only ones that are supposed to have hunting, trapping and fishing rights, and yet they can give out a GHL which gives blanket rights to whoever holds the GHL and allow them to hunt and trap on our land,” Fabian said.
“That’s the big concern here, the blurring of the relevance and meaning of treaty,” explained Ken Young, a lawyer representing the KFN.
“That’s the big issue. And the territorial government has done a good job to do that, to reach that stage and blur the meaning of treaty,” he added.
Young said the shifting of supremacy from treaties to land claims is tantamount to extinguishing constitutionally-protected rights, and the provisions of the Wildlife Act are an example of that.
The KFN doesn’t yet have a signed land claim agreement.
Environment and Natural Resources Minister Michael Miltenberger said the aboriginal leaders’ concerns are a land claims issue and have nothing to do with the Wildlife Act itself, but that, if they would come to the negotiating table, they could have them addressed.
“The majority of aboriginal governments are at the table and agree this needs to get passed and is long overdue,” Miltenberger said. “The benefit of being at the table is that they could have (these concerns) addressed, if it was a legitimate concern. If they were at the table that would be the perfect venue for them to have that discussion.”
– Jesse Winter