Land-claim talks: Dehcho First Nations, in Northern Canada, put land issues on backburner

Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian of the Dehcho First Nations says negotiations, for now, will focus on education, health, governance and other areas where the sides can find common ground. (Alex Brockman/CBC)
The Dehcho First Nations in the Northwest Territories, in Northern Canada, are using new negotiating tactics in their decades-old land claim negotiations with the federal and territorial governments.

They’ve decided to put negotiations on land and resources — which both sides remain far apart on — to the side as they seek to break the stalemate that’s developed between themselves, Ottawa and the N.W.T. government.

This “departmental approach” means negotiations would focus on education, health, governance and other areas where the sides can find common ground, explained Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian.

“Education is a priority, we really want to move forward [with that],” Norwegian said. “Our young people coming up need to be strong with Dene culture as well as western education.”

Norwegian assured delegates at this week’s Dehcho Assembly that the land issue is not being abandoned, just put to the side for now.

“I want to be clear, it’s just for a while,” she said. “We’re going to come back to it, but in the meantime we’re going to work on other areas.”

Dehcho leadership first moved to this way of thinking last year and delegates are endorsing it this week at their annual assembly in Fort Simpson, N.W.T.

‘It’s our land’

But discussions about land, and who truly owns it, continued to dominate talks. It took up most of the day Wednesday.

Delegates spoke about their relationship with the land, maintaining their long-standing position that it belongs to people in the Dehcho and cannot be surrendered in the ongoing land claims negotiations known as the Dehcho process.

“Treaty means land and resources, all ‘Dehcho process’ means is land management, not land sale,” said Rita Cli, an elder from Fort Simpson. “We don’t have to fight for it, it’s our land. It’s ours.”

Rita Cli, an elder from Fort Simpson, N.W.T., holds up a copy of the United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples at the Dehcho Assembly in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. Cli says she supports the change in negotiating tactics and believes it’s the best way forward for the First Nations. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

“The treaty is the most powerful tool we have, they can not take that away,” she said. “For as long as the grass grows and the sun shines and the river flows.

“The only time there will be change is when the river flows backwards, and I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she said.

Cli supports the change in negotiating tactics and believes it’s the best way forward for the First Nations.

Though many restated positions that have been held for years, this week’s discussion helped bring everyone on the same page with Treaty 11, devolution and ongoing negotiations, Norwegian explained.

“Some people seem to know a lot more on the topic, others are quickly trying to get on board,” she said.

Though she shares the position of membership on land, putting those discussions to the side can help break the logjam and move discussions forward, she said.

Negotiators are expected to meet with territorial and federal officials next month for further talks.

Meanwhile, Dehcho leadership and elders spent about three hours Wednesday in closed-door sessions about whether to take the Northwest Territories government to court over aspects of the devolution process.

Norwegian declined to comment on those discussions, saying she’s not prepared to share the decision at this time.

“When I’m comfortable with everyone being on board, I’ll be comfortable to share that with you,” she said.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Lack of consultation stalling land-claim agreement in Northern Canada, Dene Chief says, CBC News

Finland: Sámi youth oppose proposed Arctic rail line in northern Finland, Yle News

Norway: Inuit, Sami leading the way in Indigenous self-determination, study says, CBC News

Sweden: Report sheds light on Swedish minority’s historic mistreatment, Radio Sweden

Alex Brockman, CBC News

Alex Brockman, CBC News

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