Grand Chief Herb Norwegian of the Dehcho First Nations speaks in Nahanni Butte on September 30, 2022. Chloe Williams/Cabin Radio
At a meeting of Indigenous and GNWT leaders this week, an old stalemate between the Dehcho First Nations and territorial government returned.
At issue is membership of a body called the intergovernmental council, a little-known decision-making group that the Dehcho First Nations would like to join. But there’s a problem.
The GNWT requires that all members of the intergovernmental council sign the Northwest Territories’ devolution agreement. But Dehcho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian fundamentally disagrees with that agreement’s premise.
The intergovernmental council, which makes decisions around land and resource management in the territory, was created as devolution took place in 2014.
Devolution handed resources and authority in various areas from the federal government to the GNWT, along with five Indigenous governments – the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, NWT Métis Nation, Sahtu Secretariat, Gwich’in Tribal Council and Tłı̨chǫ Government.
Those groups are all current members of the intergovernmental council, as are the Acho Dene Koe First Nation, Fort Liard Métis Local, Salt River First Nation, Denínu Kų́ę́ First Nation and Kátł’odeeche First Nation.
Prior to 2014’s devolution agreement, resource revenue from public land in the NWT went to the federal government. Now, 50 percent of revenue from public land goes to Ottawa and 50 percent goes to the GNWT. In a press release at the time of the agreement, the GNWT committed to share “up to 25 percent of its resource revenues with these Aboriginal governments – an unprecedented sharing arrangement in Canada.”
The agreement also expanded the role of the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board, and further clarified how it would work with the territorial government around things like environmental assessment and decisions on development.
As first reported by the CBC, Premier Caroline Cochrane this week strongly encouraged Grand Chief Norwegian to sign on to devolution and thereby join the intergovernmental council, saying she would like to see the Dehcho First Nations receive more benefits. At a meeting, Cochrane is also said to have denied the suggestion that there is no Dehcho First Nations influence on decisions taken at the intergovernmental council’s level.
“The GNWT and the Indigenous governments that have signed on to devolution have consistently offered to have Dehcho First Nations participate in technical working groups, recognizing the importance of hearing their views,” Cochrane stated to Cabin Radio by email.
“GNWT and Canada maintain an open invitation to governments who have not signed the Devolution Agreement to do so … and enjoy the benefits.”
‘A GNWT land claim’
But Norwegian says he sees no benefit to signing a document that significantly increases the resources and authority of the GNWT.
“If we sign it, we are acknowledging that the territorial government is the primary and official government. And we totally disagree with that,” Norwegian told Cabin Radio.
“The territorial government is just an interim government until all the regions get their claims done. So for us to rubber-stamp something like this and recognize the GNWT as a legitimate government would be totally foolish.”
Signing would also require approval from other Dehcho leaders, said Norwegian, who feels he is unlikely to gain that support if only a fraction of future revenue from Dehcho land ever goes to the Dehcho First Nations.
From Norwegian’s perspective, when devolution was ratified – in the midst of the Dehcho Process, a separate set of negotiations, in 2013 – it felt like bad-faith negotiation. The agreement, he says, ensured that a significant portion of revenue from areas with unsettled land claims would flow to the GNWT, regardless of the outcome of land claim proceedings.
For Norwegian, that felt like “the rug got pulled out from under us.”
“All the other regions have their own little land claim agreements, their own little sections of land, and then all of a sudden the devolution comes along and they get the brunt of it,” said Norwegian.
“What [the agreement] really boils down to is a GNWT land claim. They get to manage all the land in the territory.”
Council is ‘money and access’ club
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, the deputy chair of a GNWT special committee on reconciliation and Indigenous affairs, agrees with Norwegian’s characterization of both the intergovernmental council and the devolution agreement.
“It’s very much a club where those who sign get money and access, and those who don’t are left to fight it out at a never-ending negotiation-by-attrition process with GNWT,” Johnson said.
In March, Johnson and the committee published a report that looked at how to better incorporate the tenets of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into the NWT’s negotiation strategy.
In that report, the committee said Indigenous nations had referred to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act – or MVRMA, a key piece of devolution-related legislation governing land, water and resource development – as “conceptually flawed.” According to the report, those nations recommended transitioning to a “consent-based co-management model.”
“No matter what GNWT says, signing [the devolution agreement] means you’ve bought into the MVRMA system and the resource-sharing under it,” Johnson said. “So if you don’t want those things in your land claim, it’s a worse position.”
Norwegian says he would consider signing a modified version of the devolution agreement, without the “colonial shackles,” provided he had the support of other Dehcho leaders.
But whether or not they sign, he believes being given a voice on the intergovernmental council – as well as a share of revenues earned from Dehcho land – would be a step toward fair negotiation.