Dehcho First Nations lawyer Chris Reid speaks at the 2022 Annual Assembly in Fort Simpson. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio
For the first time since 2015, main table negotiations between Dehcho First Nations leaders, the NWT government and Canada have resumed in Hay River.
While the parties made efforts to resume talks in the intervening years, the discussion had not moved forward until now. Representatives of all three are reviewing a proposed Dehcho First Nations self-government plan.
Talks stalled in 2015 over land and resources. Dehcho members recently voted to temporarily set that issue aside in order to make headway on self-government.
Negotiators have focused on creating an agreement-in-principle that would outline the jurisdiction of local and regional Dehcho governments, and include agreements on governance, housing and education.
The Dehcho First Nations held virtual town halls over the past six months to plan its negotiation strategy with members and listen to feedback.
The Dehcho land use plan has been in development since 2001. The plan includes zoning for traditional land use areas, oil and gas, mining, agriculture, commercial timber harvest, tourism camps and even a potential special infrastructure corridor that could include pipelines.
Dehcho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian said he expected some aspects of that land use plan to arise in discussions. He is planning to visit all Dehcho communities in advance of the summer 2023 Dehcho Annual Assembly, where a final vote will determine if this land use plan is the one they will bring to the negotiating table.
“Over the last few years, the assembly got together and made a number of smaller decisions on how they wanted to move forward, but the big-ticket item – lands and resources – has just sat there,” said Norwegian.
He says while formal negotiations may have stalled, on the ground, conflicts over ownership have continued.
“The encroachment – people just slowly slipping into the cracks and government slowly moving in with their legislations and grabbing land, turning leased lands into titled properties without our consent – you see that in all the communities,” said Norwegian.
“And of course, the only way that you’re really going to deal with these kinds of things is to get back to the table and start talking lands and resources.”
What’s on the table now?
In the latest negotiations, Dehcho First Nations representatives are seeking recognition from federal and territorial governments that Dehcho community governments are municipal governments and, as such, have jurisdiction over services such as land use, justice and housing.
Norwegian says that while it’s natural for parties to jockey for position and greater authority at the negotiating table, he’s hopeful that the past few years have established that collaboration is possible.
“This whole model of shared stewardship and leadership is something that already exists and is working well,” he said. “Here’s an opportunity for us to take an old shoe, put it on again and start making some tracks.”
While neither Norwegian nor the territorial government were able to provide an update on how the latest negotiations are going, they appear to share Norwegian’s optimism.
“The GNWT is pleased that the Dehcho First Nations are re-entering negotiations for a land claim and self-government agreement,” said Todd Sasaki of the NWT’s Department of Executive and Indigenous Affairs. “We are committed to working with the Dehcho and Canada to conclude an agreement that provides clarity and mutually benefits all parties.”
“We are working with partners to progress in modern treaty and self-government negotiations in a manner that is equitable, sustainable and that supports economic development for Indigenous Peoples,” said Randy Legault-Rankin, a spokesperson for the federal government.
Update: January 30, 2023 – 13:42 MT. An initial version of this article did not acknowledge receipt of a comment from the GNWT or Federal government.