NWT leaders shake hands as a UN declaration implementation bill is announced in March 2023. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio
The Northwest Territories has followed Canada and British Columbia in passing legislation to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
A bill passed on Thursday orders the GNWT to include a “statement of consistency” any time new legislation is brought forward, designed to demonstrate new laws are consistent with the principles of the UN Declaration.
Bill 85 also starts in motion the creation of an action plan to “identify priorities and tasks to advance the implementation of the declaration in the Northwest Territories.”
The legislation doesn’t change any existing laws or treaties, or the NWT government’s duty to consult.
Though the bill passed on Thursday is not likely to result in any immediate and significant change to life in the territory, it could eventually have far-reaching implications for the way in which laws are drawn up.
It is seen by supporters as a first step toward bringing the GNWT closer to the goals of the UN Declaration. The UN describes the declaration as a “universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous Peoples.”
“It’s a collaboration of ideas to make things better,” said Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos of the bill, which passed with 16 votes in favour and none against. Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge and Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Richard Edjericon abstained.
“Everybody will have a voice and a say in what they think is right,” said Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson.
‘Plan to create a plan’
Not all Indigenous nations in the NWT have supported either this legislation or the UN Declaration itself.
Some Dene leaders and Indigenous scholars say article 46 – which asserts that Indigenous peoples cannot take actions that “impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent states” – dilutes the rest of the declaration.
The NWT’s separate legislation does not appear to have the express backing of the Akaitcho Dene First Nations or Dehcho First Nations.
Bonnetrouge said he abstained from Thursday’s vote after speaking with Dehcho First Nations Grand Chief Herb Norwegian.
“I’m just wondering what the rush is to implement this when all First Nations are not on board,” said Bonnetrouge a day earlier, accusing Premier Caroline Cochrane of failing to attend enough Indigenous annual assemblies, where more feedback and support could have been garnered. (Cochrane said she attended every assembly to which she was invited, as her schedule allowed.)
Bonnetrouge said on Thursday there had been a “lack of meaningful consultation.”
Even so, when Cochrane announced the introduction of Bill 85 in March, she was flanked at a press conference by representatives of the Tłı̨chǫ Government, Sahtu Secretariat, Salt River First Nation, North Slave Métis Alliance, NWT Métis Nation, Gwich’in Tribal Council, Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, Délı̨nę Got’ı̨nę government and Acho Dene Koe First Nation.
Bill 85 was created by a working group of officials from the GNWT, Indigenous governments and Indigenous organizations. It was years in the making, having been a stated ambition of Cochrane’s government since 2019.
“The drafting of this legislation has been done with Indigenous governments in a way that respects their diverse needs and priorities,” Cochrane said on Wednesday.
“There’s still hope that we could eventually get everyone to the table,” added Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, who said the creation of an action plan formed the meat of the legislation.
“The reality is that it doesn’t really accomplish anything. It’s a plan to create a plan,” Johnson said, characterizing the bill. “The real details are in the government’s action plan that is to come.”
MLAs have called on the territory to include in its action plan “specific measures to confirm rights, devolve jurisdiction, build institutional capacity, strengthen fiscal autonomy, set service standards, and facilitate nation-to-nation relationships.”
Could GNWT be ‘a rump government’?
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly says Bill 85 could ultimately shift the way in which legislation is drawn up – and overseen.
He isn’t a fan of every aspect of that evolution.
O’Reilly has spent years railing against what he says are attempts to shut regular MLAs out of parts of the process of governing.
In this case, O’Reilly said the bill could make it “increasingly hard for regular MLAs to do their jobs.”
He said the bill’s provisions would change the legislative agenda and the way committees work, keeping regular MLAs “in the dark.”
“This is a bill to implement Indigenous rights and has the potential to very significantly change the way the Legislative Assembly operates, the way the legislative agenda is formulated, what happens in committees. And to exclude regular MLAs from that process? Not good,” he said.
Cochrane, responding, said the bill was not intended to define the role of regular MLAs, and their role in the legislature would be maintained.
O’Reilly said the bill will make it harder for regular MLAs to bring forward bills of their own – already a rare feat, given it must be done without the resources of a department. Now, he worries regular MLAs will struggle to generate an appropriate statement of consistency, one that demonstrates free, prior and informed consent, with the little time and staff they have.
He also took issue with a provision of the bill that affirms the ability of the GNWT to reach agreements with Indigenous governments, much as it does with the federal government – agreements that may not involve regular MLAs being fully informed.
“What is the GNWT going to look like at the end of the day? Is it just going to be some kind of a rump government that doesn’t do much?” O’Reilly asked.
“We’re starting to verge on constitutional change here, or looking at what is the relationship between public and Indigenous governments.”
However, he added at another point in discussion: “Don’t anybody characterize me as trying to stop or oppose this. The action plan is a good idea.”