Forced to repay debts for more than a decade after the Dene-Métis land claim’s collapse, the Gwich’in Tribal Council can finally put that money to better use.
The Canadian government distributed treaty negotiation loans across Canada in the late 1980s and early 1990s – loans meant to cover legal fees and the cost of studies and reports during negotiations.
In practice, many Indigenous governments felt the loans pressured them into accepting agreements as costs mounted and created a lasting debt burden.
In 2020, Gordon Sebastian – director of BC’s Gitxsan Nation Treaty Society – said Indigenous groups had been “driven to borrow money from the very governments who took our land in the first place.”
“This is something that has come at a cost to us as individuals and as a Nation,” Gordon said in a press release that year. “Without this debt looming over our heads, we can begin to focus on how to improve economic conditions in our community.”
From 1992 to 2007, the Gwich’in Tribal Council repaid millions of dollars stemming from these loans to the federal government. In 2019, the Liberal government – in a change of course – said the money would be given back to Indigenous governments, setting aside $919 million to forgive or repay decades of treaty negotiation loan payments.
“With interest, the total sum we paid them over those years came to $13.1 million,” said Gwich’in Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik.
At last week’s assembly in Fort McPherson, the Gwich’in Tribal Council announced how the money coming back will be spent: the majority is to be split equally between the four communities that make up the council, and the remainder will be held in savings.
Inuvik, Aklavik, Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic will each receive $2.5 million. Tsiigehtchic and Aklavik will put their shares toward construction of new office facilities, the assembly heard, and Inuvik toward paying off a newly constructed office building. Fort McPherson will hold a community assembly to decide how to spend its portion. $3.1 million will remain with the GTC.
“This funding has been restricted and was unable to be accessed until there was a resolution by the assembly on how it would be spent,” said Kyikavichik. “Now, we’re able to put it towards some long-needed infrastructure improvements in the communities.”
Controversy over consultation
Not everyone is happy with the decision.
During the assembly, several people asked for more time.
“It’s our responsibility as chairs to ensure that people have the opportunity to speak to the issues,” said one member. “We’re talking ten million dollars. I feel very uncomfortable if we’re going to decide how to spend that money within a couple of hours. It doesn’t sit well with me. This decision is being made on the behalf of many.”
“This has been 17 months in the making, 17 months of deliberation and consultation,” responded Kyikavichik. “Assemblies are about making decisions. People come all this way to see us actually moving forward. You’re welcome to speak up now and we can certainly hear out people’s concerns but, at the end of the day, it’s decision time.”
No consultation meetings were held for members who live outside the four communities, such as in Yellowknife, Edmonton or Whitehorse, but Kyikavichik insisted those members had also had the opportunity for input.
“When I travel into those jurisdictions, I frequently have meet and greet opportunities. I also have a public Facebook page where we share that information and share activities of the Gwich’in Tribal Council,” he said.
“Back in July, we made it clear that the two major issues for discussion during the assembly were the negotiation loan repayments and the removal of the deputy grand chief position.” (During the assembly, members voted to discontinue the role and have council appoint a vice-chair instead. Members will now only elect one leader, the grand chief.)
“The view that some haven’t been consulted is very unfortunate, because there were plenty of opportunities to engage with us on these matters, plenty of opportunities to participate. They just needed to take them. So for it to come up at this way at the assembly was very unfortunate,” said Kyikavichik.
“Ultimately, to see this funding go out to the communities is the culmination of a lot of work by the organization. It allows us to move forward.”