The territorial government confirmed it had adjusted aspects of its upcoming Dempster Highway closure after the Gwich’in Tribal Council expressed concern.
Last Thursday, the GNWT announced it would temporarily close Highway 8 – also known as the Dempster Highway – between kilometres one and 14.2 once ferries stopped for the season and before the ice road forms.
The territory said the closure was necessary as border enforcement officers would otherwise have difficulty policing the NWT-Yukon border during the Covid-19 pandemic. (At the moment, almost anyone entering the NWT from the Yukon must self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival.)
However, the Gwich’in Tribal Council subsequently took issue with some aspects of the territory’s announced highway closure.
As a result, the territory said it had made adjustments so residents could “retain access for traditional activities.”
The council’s concerns were first reported by NNSL.
Grand Chief Ken Smith told Cabin Radio the council was given no advance warning.
“I read the news release on Thursday morning with a level of surprise, because there was no notice provided by the GNWT Department of Infrastructure about the closure and the nature of that,” Smith said.
The stretch of highway set to be closed is the access point to hunting and harvesting grounds, he added – a primary concern for the Gwich’in government.
“The area has traditionally been used by our people to harvest caribou, wood, and traditional medicines,” Smith explained.
“The Porcupine Caribou are expected to be an area in the next few days, and we really had a number of concerns with the potential for our access to be impeded in the harvest of caribou when they do arrive into the area.”
Restricting access to those grounds would violate constitutionally protected Gwich’in rights to harvest and hunt on their traditional territory, Smith said.
He said families use the Dempster to access camps in a spot locally known as Midway Lake. Such camps were a key response to the Covid-19 pandemic for the Gwich’in.
“That was one of the many locations that the Gwich’in went to earlier on in this pandemic, back in the spring, to pass the time and protect their families from any potential for community transmission,” Smith said. “That’s going to continue over the foreseeable future.”
Smith said the council raised its concerns directly with the GNWT and was told again that coronavirus prompted the closure.
“We had to remind them that, yes, while we agree that the health and safety of NWT residents must remain our top priority, the Covid-19 pandemic does not provide the GNWT with sweeping authority to unilaterally make decisions in our area,” Smith said.
The GNWT has since “clarified” aspects of the closure for the GTC, according to Smith.
For instance, according to Smith, the planned closure of the James Creek gate has been amended so people can continue to access their camps and harvesting grounds. The gate will continue to close during bad weather, as is standard procedure.
In future, he said, the GNWT should have better dialogue and a more collaborative approach to these decisions with the Gwich’in and other Indigenous groups.
“Talk to us about what needs to happen,” he said. “We are very understanding and practical people, and we can advise on any of our considerations that need to be dealt with when applying these types of decisions.
“Just having that engagement and dialogue is incredibly important, especially when we’re all trying to do the same thing which is protect our people.
“We also need to recognize the fact that we do have constitutionally protected rights to harvest, and that is going to continue into the future and is a non-negotiable for the Gwich’in.”
The NWT’s Department of Infrastructure said in a statement: “The GNWT has heard concerns from communities that the closure could negatively affect traditional activities, such as hunting. As a result, the closure order has been amended to ensure local residents will retain access for traditional activities.
“The highway will reopen once ice crossings open for the season. Only traditional harvesters and emergency, enforcement, and maintenance vehicles are exempted from the closure.
“We will continue to work closely with communities as we monitor the Covid-19 situation and adjust to the changing circumstances.”