Kátł’odeeche First Nation (KFN) members will soon decide whether they want to manage their own reserve lands and resources rather than having their land governed by the Indian Act.
The KFN Land Law – also referred to as a land code – will allow the community to make its own decisions about how their land is used and managed, but will also transfer some liability to the nation from the federal government.
A vote will take place on Wednesday, July 29 from 8am to 8pm at the Chief Lamalice Complex. An advance poll is available on July 22 at the same location and with the same hours. All eligible voters have been sent a mail-in ballot which they can use instead of voting in-person.
“Funding goes directly to KFN to manage land and administer the funding, rather than the minister administering the funding,” said Chief April Martel, explaining how the land code would work.
“The land code committee and chief and council, with direction from membership, come up with land laws that will govern our First Nation.”
Martel explained that since the previous chief and council signed a Framework Agreement on First Nation Land Management in October 2017, a KFN land code committee has been meeting regularly to draft the code in accordance with the community’s wishes.
“This land code committee was developed so each family has representation,” explained Martel. The committee is chaired by Diane Fabian, with Irene Graham, Aaron Tambour, Pat Martel, and Robert Lamalice sitting on it as members.
Chief Martel explained the committee includes a mix of younger people and Elders, “so they can get the whole idea of what they want to see and what their dreams and hopes are.”
Over the past three years, she said, the committee has been engaging with KFN members and touring other First Nations with land codes to learn from them.
“The development that they’re doing on their First Nation is unbelievable,” said Martel of Muskoday First Nation in Saskatchewan. “It’s just beautiful. Canada gave them back the reserve land that was rightfully theirs and then they just went and developed everything. It was really nice to see such a fast turnaround.”
‘It’s exciting, it’s good’
If KFN votes to adopt the land code – 20 percent of members need to turn out for the vote, and 51 percent of votes must be in favour – then the First Nation will have more control over developing and leasing its own land for residential and commercial purposes, without having to go through often time-intensive federal processes.
According to KFN’s land code website, a vote to adopt the code will mean about 25 percent of the Indian Act – the land management parts – no longer applies.
“[This land code] is the first one in the Northwest Territories. It’s exciting, it’s good. It’s managing your own reserve: none of that Indian Affairs any more, the ministers, the waiting,” said Martel.
“Indian Affairs [now Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada] restricts things like casinos and marijuana stores,” she added, explaining that KFN members would have the autonomy to decide which businesses they wanted on reserve lands if they vote yes.
Martel believes the land code would positively impact the First Nation’s ability to provide housing for members. Right now, some policies in place have been criticized for complicating access to mortgages or loans for repairs.
“That’s really hard, it’s holding us back so much,” said Martel.
While a land code allows the community to collect land revenues (with the exception of oil and gas royalties) and is expected to increase efficiencies, control, and community accountability, there are a few drawbacks: First Nations with land codes assume liability for any environmental contamination that happens after the land code comes into effect, while it can be costly to develop laws and policies.
The Yellowhead Institutes states the land code framework still “operates within the governance system created by the Indian Act,” encourages First Nations to develop their economies in a specific way, and “does not deal more substantively with our territories and redistribution of land and resources, which is necessary for us to truly self-governing peoples.”
But for KFN, Martel believes the positives outweigh the potential negatives.
“It’s really good, it’s very positive I think,” she said, after spending time going door-to-door in the community and calling people who live off-reserve to explain the land code vote and answer people’s questions.
KFN has held open houses and published material in Dene Yatié and English for members.
“[We’re] trying to make sure the members are very informed of the land code. So we’re basically telling them … we will be the managers, we will make our own laws,” said Martel.
She stressed that the land code will not impact treaty rights in any way, a concern she said she had heard raised multiple times.