The Yellowknives Dene and City of Yellowknife have signed an agreement to guide how the two communities work together.
The memorandum of understanding comes as the City undergoes a reconciliation process with Indigenous peoples of the region, while the Yellowknives Dene prepare for the outcome of the Akaitcho Process, set to provide certainty regarding local land.
Announcing the finalized agreement on Thursday, the chiefs of Ndilo and Dettah joined Yellowknife’s mayor in emphasizing mutual cooperation and benefit.
All three spoke diplomatically regarding recent concern that the City is ending its Indigenous relations post, with Chief of Dettah Edward Sangris saying reconciliation “will still move forward.”
Sangris reminded those gathered at City Hall that the Yellowknives Dene had been in this area since “time immemorial” and education was needed to ensure people of both communities understood this.
Since the signing of treaties in the early 1900s, Sangris said, the Yellowknives Dene had always expressed a will to live in “cooperation, friendship, and peace” among others in the area.
“This is more important now than ever. In the coming months we’re expecting to sign an agreement-in-principle on our negotiations,” he said, referring to the Akaitcho Process.
Negotiator Fred Sangris told city council in June that the signing of an Akaitcho agreement-in-principle is imminent. The process is meant to find an agreement on land, resources, and self-government between the NWT government, federal government, and Dene peoples indigenous to Dettah, Ndilo, Łutselk’e, and Fort Resolution.
An Akaitcho agreement would also bring a host of economic changes, unlocking the potential for business development on currently withdrawn land. In June, Fred Sangris said a “big boom” is expected in Indigenous businesses development.
Yellowknives Dene Drummers, including Chief Edward Sangris in purple, at City Hall on Thursday. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
Chief of Ndilo Ernest Betsina said the renewed memorandum of understanding, which replaces one in place since 2002, lays out how the two governments will partner on economic development and infrastructure.
“If anything, it’s going to strengthen the City and YKDFN,” Betsina said, giving the example of replacing Yellowknife’s water intake pipeline, a forthcoming project set to cost more than $30 million. “That’s a collaboration, both of us working together,” he said.
Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty spoke of ways the two communities are collaborating: from economic development to a “groundbreaking approach” on changing the communities’ shared boundary, to the water intake line.
Alty said the new memorandum is important as it clarifies how the two governments will meet – at least once a year, council-to-council – alongside how the two will take minutes and move forward on issues of “mutual concern and opportunity.”
Rebecca Alty, left, and Ernest Betsina prior to the signing of a renewed memorandum of understanding. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
The next step between the two governments will be work on mutual interests identified in the memorandum, including land use planning, emergency management, infrastructure planning and management, environmental protection, and culture and heritage protection.
Sangris said he prioritized ensuring the east side of Yellowknife Bay is kept for the Yellowknives Dene – as he said was the wish of the people in the past – leaving the west side to be developed by the City.
Alty said settling the Akaitcho Process and changing the municipal boundary would trigger “a lot of discussions … in a planning and lands perspective.”
“We are almost there, but we’re not quite yet,” said Betsina of negotiations on the proposed boundary change, which would see Ndilo and Joliffe Island move under Yellowknives Dene jurisdiction while the City inherits a tract of land to the south.
‘Reconciliation will continue’
A signing ceremony for the memorandum of understanding came within a day of Yellowknife’s mayor and council wrapping deliberations on the municipality’s budget for the next year.
Absent from that budget is funding to continue an Indigenous relations advisor position, which is set to end in February after being funded federally for 18 months.
The city’s only Indigenous councillor, Stacie Smith, attempted to get the position funded through the budget process – but her effort failed to achieve majority support, despite backing from councillors Cynthia Mufandaedza and Rommel Silverio.
City administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett said even without the advisor, work to finalize and implement a reconciliation action plan will be “infused throughout the organization.”
Alty echoed that sentiment on Thursday. She told reporters the term position had a goal of creating the action plan which, once finalized, will identify different areas of municipal operations where work is needed.
“All City staff will be responsible for implementing the reconciliation plan. So we do take reconciliation seriously and we’ll be continuing, once the plan comes forward, implementing it and then continuing our relationship with the YKDFN,” Alty said.
Betsina said the City’s introduction of the position had been a factor in improved relations between the two governments – characterizing the post, presently occupied by Maggie Mercredi, as a go-to person who “respects our YKDFN.”
“We’ll see what happens from here, I guess,” he said, learning of council’s decision not to fund the position beyond February.
“It looks like there’s a decision made already and we’ll just go forward from there.”
While Sangris felt the liaison position was important to both communities, he added: “Reconciliation will still move forward, whether we have the position or not.”
Chief of Dettah Edward Sangris opened with a prayer song, together with the Yellowknives Dene Drummers. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio