Northern Indigenous leaders are welcoming the federal budget decision to erase debt incurred from land claims and treaty negotiations with the Canadian government.
They say that instead of repaying the federal government, that money can now be reinvested in programs, wellness, governance and youth.
Chiefs from the Dehcho, Inuvialuit, Gwich’in, Sahtu, Tlicho and South Slave regions were in Detah on Tuesday to meet with Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett.
The Liberal government earmarked $1.4-billion over seven years for loan forgiveness across Canada in the 2019 federal budget.
Yellowknives Dene First Nation Chief Ernest Betsina said the decision is welcomed.
“This forgiveness grant will be provided to our future generations … and provide more opportunities that can support First Nations,” he said.
Betsina said past federal cutbacks under previous governments affected core funding, negotiations, language planning and housing.
Loan system to negotiate land claims not ‘successful’
In 2018, the federal government adopted a grant system to capture the “actual costs of self-government,” Bennett said.
The 2019 budget also sets aside $40 million over five years for First Nations to research and develop claims.
“Getting to self-government shouldn’t be based on loans anymore. People spending 20 years and then $30-million in debt to not quite get there, has just not been successful,” she said.
Negotiation on a loan basis was a hard-sell for communities, she said.
“If people don’t feel that things are fair then it’s pretty hard for them to get their communities behind them to do the work,” Bennett said.
‘Long ways to go’
Tlicho Grand Chief George Mackenzie told Bennett self-government will improve the future for young Indigenous people.
“Us in the Aboriginal world have a long ways to go yet, but we will not get there if we don’t have the federal support that we are seeking,” he said.
As the federal election approaches, Mackenzie said people will be looking for a party “committed 101 per cent to make things happen.”
“Our young people today, everywhere, are crying for help … we lack resources … we lack the funding,” he said.
Other negotiations proceeding
Yellowknives Dene Chief Ernest Betsina announced that Akaitcho First Nations could have an agreement in principle this year. They have been negotiating since 1992.
Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian reminded Bennett that the Dehcho First Nations have been in talks with Canada for nearly 20 years, and negotiations are stalled over surface and subsurface resource rights.
The Dehcho First Nations want to temporarily set aside land and resources and work on issues like education and self-government, Norwegian said.
“We are trying to decide how that looks like for us. It is a struggle and we really would like to move forward, but make sure that it is on our terms, that we are moving toward self-determination,” Norwegian said.
Meanwhile, K’atl’odeeche First Nation Chief April Martel says the community is leaning toward self-government, but has concerns about keeping reserve status under the Indian Act.
“That’s really powerful to our people because we don’t want to lose that. I want you to recognize that,” she said to Bennett.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Federal budget promises $700M for Canada’s North over next decade, CBC News
Norway: Inuit, Sami leading the way in Indigenous self-determination, study says, CBC News
United States: Alaska’s new House Tribal Affairs Committee aims to advance state relationships, Alaska Public Media