A new way forward for land claims

Premier Bob McLeod: GNWT is committed to reaching final agreements in land claims negotiations.

New proposals have been put forward to settle long-running land claim negotiations in the NWT.

The new ideas are in two reports from ministerial special representatives appointed last year by the federal government to facilitate discussions between negotiating parties, and to provide recommendations to address challenges.

Most significantly, Canada and the GNWT plan to make new offers to each indigenous group by mid-May.

On April 6, federal Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Premier Bob McLeod, also the territorial minister for Indigenous Affairs, met in Ottawa with the leadership of Dehcho First Nations, Akaitcho First Nations and the Northwest Territory Metis Nation to discuss their respective land claims.

“We are committed to working in close partnership with the Government of the Northwest Territories and indigenous partners to advance outstanding land claims quickly and fairly,” said Bennett in a news release.

In the same release, McLeod said the GNWT will develop new, flexible approaches to get deals done.

“We are confident that agreements with all three aboriginal governments are achievable,” he said.

The report on the Dehcho Process was produced by Anne-Marie Doyle, while the report on the outstanding southeast NWT negotiations was produced by Thomas Isaac.

Both special representatives met with the leadership of all three indigenous groups and community members while drafting their reports.

In a teleconference with NWT media on April 6, McLeod said he was very pleased with the reports, noting they provide a way forward with each indigenous group in the spirit of reconciliation and co-operation.

“All three claims that the reports looked at are very long-standing,” he said. “They’ve all been negotiating for over 20 years. We feel we needed to have an independent report to outline the challenges and we think that this report has done that. With the new path forward, we think it gives us a real opportunity to settle the land claim or make very significant advancement within the last two and a half years of our mandate.”

The Isaac report mentions 18 to 24 months to final settlement.

“I think all of the aboriginal governments that were addressed in the Isaac report all agree we can get it to a final agreement or AIP (agreement-in-principle) within 24 months,” said McLeod. “And I think what is described in the report will allow us to move forward. First and foremost, we would work together to establish an aggressive work plan, for sure.”

The premier noted it is a good time to make a concerted effort to get all the land claims finalized.

“We aren’t starting from scratch,” he said. “A lot of these claims they’re probably at the 85 to 90 per cent completion range. So we’re almost at the finish line to begin with. So that’s why we’re comfortable that we think that we can do it in the remaining 24 months.”

Garry Bailey, president of the Northwest Territory Metis Nation, said the biggest thing in the Isaacs report is the need for a mandate change to allow negotiators to be more flexible and creative, to get out of the old thinking left over from the failed Dene-Metis agreement from 1990, and to focus on reconciliation.

Bailey said it is a “definitely ambitious” goal to get the land claim talks settled in two years.

“I think it’s possible for sure, as long as they focus on the main points and make a reasonable offer,” he said. “Like there’s going to be new offer given in mid-May they’re talking about. I think that’s key for sure. They have some outstanding issues to deal with. I mean they finalized devolution in two years.”

Bailey also said more negotiating sessions would be needed, instead of the current three days a month.

“I think five would be really beneficial to move it forward,” he said. “We have to get together and definitely do a work plan and try to make this possible for 18 to 24 months.”

Bailey said government has to be serious about getting a final agreement, and deal with issues such as continued harvesting outside an agreement area, a proper land and resource offer, and an allotment of land in Wood Buffalo National Park.

K’atlodeeche First Nation (KFN) on the Hay River Reserve was not invited to the meeting in Ottawa, and was not happy about that.

In an April 7 news release, it objected to being “excluded” from the gathering, and noted it was not provided with advance copies of the reports despite requesting them.

“This basic lack of respect by both governments does not speak well to the notion of reconciliation,” the release stated.

KFN noted it has reached the preliminary conclusion that neither report substantively addresses KFN’s unique circumstances involving treaty and aboriginal rights within its primary traditional territory.

“KFN considers this to be a fundamental oversight, and reminds all governments that reconciliation will require agreements with KFN respecting its traditional territory,” the news release continued. “Negotiation policies and mandates which do not respect KFN will not fulfill the honour of the Crown nor resolve regional land claims issues.”

KFN added it believes the oversight can be remedied, and looks forward to further negotiations with the federal and territorial governments.

In his report, Isaacs wrote, “Any final settlement of claims in the southwest NWT needs to respect the asserted rights and interests of the K’atl’odeeche First Nation. Likewise, K’atl’odeeche First Nation should respect the process of reconciliation engaged in by Canada and the GNWT with regard to other aboriginal peoples that may involve lands over which the K’atl’odeeche and others jointly assert aboriginal claims.”