Understanding Treaty 8

Last week, K’atlodeeche First Nation (KFN) held a workshop to revitalize in the minds of band members what’s behind its current treaty with the federal government.

Chief Roy Fabian said the First Nation now has more direction on how to move forward with self-governance negotiations.

Earlier this year, KFN decided to leave the Deh Cho Process, in essence separating itself from the devolution process between the federal and territorial governments.

By doing so, KFN decided to keep its reserve and the rights it originally agreed to under Treaty 8, which Fabian said were all but forgotten.

Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus addresses those in attendance at the four-day treaty workshop at the Chief Lamalice Complex on April 9. Angele Cano/NNSL photo

Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus addresses those in attendance at the four-day treaty workshop at the Chief Lamalice Complex on April 9.
Angele Cano/NNSL photo

I don’t think many people in the NWT understand their treaty rights. We’ve been caught up in land claims so long that we’ve forgotten,” said Fabian. “We never gave up sovereignty over our land.”

Zeroing in on precedent-setting court cases, the oral versus the written version of the treaty and elder testaments, the four-day workshop aimed to remind KFN members of the rights for which they should fight.

Smith’s Landing First Nation elder and former negotiator Francois Paulette, Dene Nation National Chief Bill Erasmus, Dene elders, KFN members and legal consultants gathered to examine the historical treaty and its influences over time.

Treaty 8 was signed in the NWT, along with Treaty 11. Canada’s aim in signing the treaty was to open the North’s resources to the rest of the country.

Fabian said the Dene interpretation of the treaty is oral and differs vastly from the written version of the treaty. The Dene hold that they never gave up jurisdiction over their traditional lands to the Crown, although that’s what appears in Treaty 8. They viewed the treaty as a peaceful agreement, allowing government to use their land with permission.

The federal government viewed the treaty as an exchange of goods: jurisdiction over land for services.

Fabian cited an elder’s written statement from a 1970s case heard by Justice William Morrow. He said one elder disclosed that he had never signed the treaty, even though his name appears on the treaty document. In the place where the elders would sign in syllabics, there were many Xs.

The Paulette case resulted from an attempt to suspend development on what government considers Crown land by filing a caveat.

In 1973, Morrow of the Supreme Court of the NWT ruled that, “Notwithstanding the language of the two treaties, there [is] a sufficient doubt on the facts that aboriginal title was extinguished.”

Following that case, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against the caveat on Crown land, but sidestepped the issue of aboriginal title to the land.

Following this in the 1970s, the federal government began negotiations for comprehensive land-claims settlements across the NWT, including Treaty 8 territory.

Fabian said the First Nation had been caught up in land claim negotiations for so long that knowledge of original oral treaty rights was all but lost.

The chief said, over the course of the four days, participants at the workshop discussed existing treaty rights and different negotiation options from Canada. They consider traditional land still under their jurisdiction. That means any development needs to be approved by the First Nation before it receives a go-ahead.

All my beliefs have been affirmed of what I know about the treaty,” said Fabian. “It’s beyond doubt now. Now we know what the treaty is and, when we go to the table, we have to tell (Canada) how it’s going to be.”

Erasmus offered his support, and noted that, with one of the largest reserves in Canada, KFN has great opportunity and potential for growth.

The Dene national chief reaffirmed the rights that the KFN still maintains over its land.

Chief Daniel Sonfrere is one of the few elders still alive who understands what happened to our people,” said Erasmus. “They are the ones who took the government to court and they won.”

by Angele Cano