Metis leaders in the South Slave are “frustrated” by the status of their long-running land claim negotiations with the GNWT and the federal government.
And it’s not just because the negotiations are into their 21st year with a final agreement years away, even though an agreement-in-principle on land and resources was signed in 2015. A final agreement would also deal with self-government.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s an impasse,” said Fort Resolution’s Garry Bailey, president of the Northwest Territory Metis Nation. “But we’re frustrated because we’ve been dealing with these issues for a long time.”
Bailey and the presidents of the three Metis community councils in the South Slave – Trevor Beck of Hay River, Ken Hudson of Fort Smith and Arthur Beck of Fort Resolution – met with The Hub on March 15 to explain their many concerns.
Bailey described the financial predicament of the Metis Nation after two decades of negotiations that have taken place with money borrowed from the federal government.
“There’s been no core funding for the Metis ever,” he said. “We get $14,000 a year and all the rest with the nation we run off of loan dollars. We average borrowing $1.5 million a year to survive, and that’s from our land claim. We’re now $30 million in debt.”
And, he wonders why core funding for programs and services hasn’t changed in light of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision last year in the Daniels case. The court ruled Metis and non-status Indians are Indians under the Canadian Constitution and the federal government has a fiduciary duty to them.
Hudson said the financial offer to the Metis in the agreement-in-principle was $64 million, but that has grown to about $71 million.
“But we owe $30-something million,” he said. “So what’s left on the table? Less than $40 million now.”
Bailey said the debt will hopefully be negotiated away by increasing the money provided in a final agreement.
Hudson noted both the GNWT and the federal government say they want to expedite the Metis claim, but actual negotiations only take place maybe 25 days out of each year.
“We actually proposed a different way of doing business,” he said. “We said we will take on the job of drafting every chapter that’s contained in the self-government agreement.”
Hudson said the idea was proposed in the last six months, but the GNWT was the biggest critic of the idea.
“We’re going to start cranking out chapters that make up a self-government agreement,” he said, adding the GNWT and the federal government can put their spins on it afterward.
“We’ll work whatever it takes,” said Trevor Beck.
The GNWT declined to offer a response to the Metis concerns when contacted by The Hub.
A lot of the things brought up by the Metis Nation are part of the negotiation process, said Andrew Livingstone, a senior cabinet communications advisor with the Department of the Executive. “We don’t negotiate in public when it comes to these things. So we’d like to maintain the confidentiality of the negotiations at the table.”
The Hub also contacted Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada for comment, but had not received replies to e-mailed questions as of deadline.
The Metis leaders are also fundamentally opposed to a GNWT stance that they should not be able to harvest outside an agreement area.
“They’re trying to restrict us to the South Slave only harvesting, and we’re not budging on that,” said Bailey. “That’s one of our key issues. We’re going to be harvesting outside of our agreement. If that doesn’t happen, we won’t have a claim.”
That stance was backed by Arthur Beck of Fort Resolution.
“They still want to keep us in this line. It’s like a pen,” he said.
The Metis leaders are also disturbed by the GNWT’s stand on cabin taxation.
“They want to charge us for our cabins and to us that goes against our inherent rights,” said Bailey.
“They want us to include it in negotiations, but it’s not an issue for negotiations,” said Hudson of cabin taxation. “It could be, but we don’t want it to be because what if we don’t settle a claim, or our claim could be five years away? Why are we getting taxed now? As aboriginal people, we shouldn’t be taxed, period, because we have aboriginal rights to harvest year round, no limits. We should have a right to shelter ourselves while we’re doing it. Yet the government says no.”
Bailey said the Metis had hoped for a closer relationship with the GNWT following devolution.
“We didn’t think they were going to turn around and start trying to challenge our lifestyles,” he said.
The issues with the GNWT even go to terminology. The Metis leaders said the GNWT won’t use the term “inherent rights,” but prefers “asserted rights.”
Last year, the federal government appointed special representative Thomas Isaac to review land claims processes in the NWT, including for the Metis Nation.
The Metis leaders hope that review might lead to some improvement in the process.
“We’re always optimistic,” said Trevor Beck.
Bailey noted one positive thing is the federal government has said an eventual agreement will be constitutionally protected.
However, he listed a number of other difficult issues, including access to land in Wood Buffalo National Park as part of 25,194 square kilometres included in the agreement-in-principle.
There is also the issue of possible compensation for the years Metis were not allowed to hunt and trap in the park.
“We estimate on the low side – which might sound a little bit ridiculous, but don’t forget it’s 80 some years of us being excluded from the park – that, in meat and fur, we’ve lost $120 million in that period of time,” said Hudson.
Bailey estimated it will take another five to seven years at a minimum to reach a final agreement in the land claim negotiations.