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What a change in federal gov’t could mean for N.W.T. land claim talks

With a federal election less than two weeks away, some Indigenous leaders are worried a change in government could affect the progress of land claim and self-government talks.

Garry Bailey, president of the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, says a change in government could set back his group’s land, resources and self-government negotiations. (Senate of Canada/Jade Thériault)

With a federal election less than two weeks away, several Indigenous leaders in the Northwest Territories are worried about what a change in government could mean for their land claim negotiations. 

“If [the Liberals] lose the power that they have, it’s going to set us right back to the start again,” said Garry Bailey, president of the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, which has been in land claims and self-government talks since 1981. “I really don’t want to see a change.”

While some Indigenous groups in the N.W.T. have signed agreements-in-principle since the Liberal government assumed power in 2015, not a single final agreement has been ratified. 

Still, leaders and negotiators for some Indigenous groups say the Liberals have been more open-minded and communicative than the previous Conservative government, and they worry another Conservative government could mean a return to the old ways.   

‘A take-it-or-leave-it attitude’

Talks under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper were “pretty cutthroat,” said Bailey. 

“It was more of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude … You don’t want to take it, negotiations are shut down,” he said, whereas the Liberals have been more willing to negotiate. 

While discussions haven’t progressed as quickly as he would like, Bailey gave credit to the Liberal government for forgiving loans incurred through these talks over the years.

There are currently four land, resources and self-government agreements under negotiation in the Northwest Territories, as well as six standalone self-government agreements, and two communities working on transboundary deals. 

Maurice Moses is the chief of Pehdzeh Ki First Nation in Wrigley, which is part of a group of First Nations working to secure a land claim and self-government agreement the Dehcho region. 

A sign for the Pehdzeh Ki First Nation tourist information centre with a map of the community. Chief Maurice Moses said a Dehcho final agreement would bring jobs and other economic benefits to his community. (John Last/CBC)

Moses said a Dehcho final agreement would bring jobs and other economic benefits to his community, and not having one has hindered progress on projects like a highway extension from Wrigley into the Sahtu region.

But things have gotten better in recent years, said Moses. “Stephen Harper, when he was in there, I thought he really kind of held the community down,” he said. “[Liberal Leader] Justin Trudeau, he really wants to do reconciliation and stuff with First Nations, so it kind of helped in a way.”

The Akaitcho Dene First Nations, whose land claim includes a large swath of land on the eastern side of  N.W.T., have been in talks with Canada over land and governing authorities since 1992. 

In those negotiations, the land base has been a major sticking point, said the group’s chief negotiator, Don Balsillie. 

The Akaitcho asserted territory is rich in minerals and home to the territory’s three diamond mines. (Government of the Northwest Territories)

The asserted Akaitcho territory is rich in minerals and home to the territory’s three diamond mines.

“So we have to deal with a multitude of issues that affect everyone, especially when it comes to resource management,” Balsillie said. 

There’s also disagreement about the very nature of these modern treaties, Balsillie said.

Canada wants final agreements that are “set in stone” — deals that eliminate the possibility of misinterpretation, he said. Meanwhile, Indigenous governments are looking for “breathing, living, organic sorts of arrangements,” so they can make amendments in the future if they need to — particularly if there are changes to the constitution related to the rights of Indigenous people. 

In Balsillie’s view, the Akaitcho negotiations have benefited from a Liberal government. He said the Conservatives weren’t as flexible or open to new ideas. 

Territorial gov’t not helpful

Jim Antoine is a former N.W.T. premier and past chief of Liidlii Koe First Nation. He was involved in Dehcho land claim and self-government negotiations.

 Antoine said the Northwest Territories government is largely to blame for the slow pace of talks. 

The Dehcho First Nations didn’t support devolution in 2014, when the federal government handed control over lands and resources to the territorial government. Since then, said Antoine, the territory has asserted itself in ways that haven’t been all that helpful.

He also said the Conservatives were harder to work with and showed less concern for environmental protection. 

The territorial Department of Indigenous and Executive Affairs government declined a request for an interview.

‘Harper gets a hard rap’

Former prime minister Stephen Harper often gets a bad rap when it comes to Indigenous issues, said Ken Coates, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan. (Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)

It’s not easy to say which federal party, historically, has been more effective at settling land claims.

Many land claim deals were negotiated under Conservative governments, but signed by Liberal governments, and vice versa, said Ken Coates, a professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan who specializes in land claims and northern governance.

Conservative governments have been motivated settle claims for economic reasons: “We want to get the economy going, we have to remove the uncertainty, a modern treaty provides certainty. Now we know who owns what,” he said.

University of Saskatchewan professor Ken Coates specializes in land claims and northern governance. (Jason Warick/CBC)

“Harper gets a hard rap for not doing a lot on the Indigenous file fairly, but they moved a lot of the land claim stuff forward quite nicely.”

Coates also commended the Liberals, saying they’re negotiating in good faith and in the spirit of the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples. 

What N.W.T. candidates are saying

In an emailed statement, the Northwest Territories’ Conservative candidate said the Liberals under Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have “failed to create sustainable, economic opportunities for Indigenous peoples,” citing cancelled Northern Gateway pipeline (which received both support and opposition from B.C. First Nations) and the moratorium on new off-shore oil and gas leases in the Arctic.

“Conservatives are focused on bringing forward policies that make real and measurable improvements in the lives of Canada’s Indigenous peoples,” wrote Yanik D’Aigle. “Conservatives support effective investments in important areas, such as access to housing, health services and good quality drinking water. It is critical that government spending translates into meaningful results on the ground.”

Harper gets a hard rap for not doing a lot on the Indigenous file fairly, but they moved a lot of the land claim stuff forward quite nicely.– Ken Coates, professor at the University of Saskatchewan

Mary Beckett, the Northwest Territories’ NDP candidate, conceded that the Liberals have made “small improvements” at land claim and self-government tables, but said the federal government could do better. She said the process could be less “adversarial.” 

The Green Party’s N.W.T. candidate, Paul Falvo, said in an email that his party would “immediately implement the land claims agreements already negotiated and languishing for lack of funding.”

Luke Quinlan, the People’s Party candidate for the N.W.T., did not respond to a request for comment.

Liberal incumbent Michael McLeod said the Liberal government has offered more flexibility in talks, but that a northern-specific policy to guide negotiations in the Northwest Territories could help move things along.

When asked how a change in the federal government could affect negotiations, a spokesperson for the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said they “are not in a position to speculate on any potential impacts of a change in government at this time.”

No matter who is elected in two weeks, Duane Smith, Inuvialuit Regional Corporation chair and CEO, hopes they are ‘willing to work with us as well as we have been working with the present government, today.’ (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

In the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, which covers the northernmost reaches of the territory, a finalized land claim was just the first step. Now the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation is implementing that agreement, said it’s chair and CEO, Duane Smith, and a big part of that is reminding other governments that they have a role to play. 

“It’s an ongoing process every day because it’s not on their radars all the time,” he said.

It was “very difficult” to get access to federal ministers in the previous Conservative government, said Smith, and it was hard to set up meetings to discuss implementation.

No matter who is elected in two weeks, said Smith, he hopes they are “willing to work with us as well as we have been working with the present government, today.”

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