For almost 30 years, the Gwich’in Tribal Council has been in the process of negotiating a self-government agreement with the federal and territorial governments.
The Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, signed in April 1992, was heralded as a necessary first step at the time by restoring Gwich’in control over their lands. It lays out a framework for eventual self-government with the objective to “enable the Gwich’in to govern their affairs and to administer resources, programs and services, as appropriate to the circumstances of the Gwich’in.”
Nearly three decades later, the process remains far from over.
Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik estimated a final self-government agreement is at least five years away.
“To tell you the truth, we didn’t think self-government was going to last as long with the negotiations process when we signed the land claim in 1992,” he told Cabin Radio.
“We often thought at the time that self-government would follow within the decade and, unfortunately, that never materialized. A lot has transpired in the 24 years since we started negotiating – a lot of stops and starts and I know, at times, frustration.”
A successful self-government agreement for the Gwich’in would see both the federal and territorial governments handing to the Gwich’in authority to run programs and services, and the ability to create and implement laws.
Other Indigenous communities and regions in the NWT are pursuing similar agreements.
Both the Tłı̨chǫ Government and Sahtu community of Délı̨nę have settled self-government agreements. Ongoing negotiations include the Inuvialuit, Dehcho First Nations, NWT Métis Nation, and Sahtu Dene and Métis of Colville Lake, among others.
The GTC is now making a push to move self-government forward, according to Kyikavichik.
Negotiators are working to update an agreement-in-principle that outlines a timeline, framework, and objectives for a final agreement. The draft document will be presented at the GTC’s Annual General Assembly in Inuvik this August, where Gwich’in citizens will be able to offer feedback.
Kyikavichik has taken to frequently updating GTC members over Facebook, breaking down what it is looking for in negotiations and what self-government for the Gwich’in people means.
He said the aim is to help citizens better understand the process and its complexities so they can share their thoughts and concerns.
“Eventually, they are going to have to ratify a Gwich’in government agreement,” Kyikavichik said, “and critical to that process will be a firm understanding of what it may mean, what the impacts are, and how things are going to change.
“At the end of the day, we can do all of this great work negotiating an agreement. However, if our people aren’t behind it and supporting it … then we’re not much further ahead than we are today.”
What is the GTC looking for?
The GTC is pursuing a regional model of self-government.
Three of the four Gwich’in communities – Aklavik, Tsiigehtchic, and Tetlit Zheh (Fort McPherson) – are represented by the GTC in negotiations.
The Nihtat Gwich’in Council, in Inuvik, has been pursuing a separate self-government agreement since 2018, though it remains a part of the GTC board.
There are seven areas the GTC has determined are “priority jurisdictions.” They are governance, fiscal relations, housing, land management, culture and heritage, economic development, and taxation.
Kyikavichik said the hope is to assume authority over these jurisdictions within the next five years.
“The priorities are really what’s important to the Gwich’in,” he explained. “The reason we are seeking an agreement on Gwich’in government is to restore our historical methods of government.
“That’s through clear lines of leadership at a community level, involvement of our youth and our Elders in decision-making, but also understanding that we do not want the government unless it has the necessary funding to be able to support it.”
Other areas such as health, social services, and justice will follow within the next 20 years, Kyikavichik envisages.
Bands and DGOs splintered
Alongside identifying priority jurisdictions, a key discussion has been determining what a sovereign self-government would look like at both the regional and local level.
While the Gwich’in Tribal Council is responsible for administering the rights and benefits laid out in the land claim at a regional level, the agreement establishes “designated Gwich’in organizations” – or DGOs, for short – in each of the four Gwich’in communities to do so locally.
The four DGOs are the Nihtat Gwich’in Council in Inuvik, the Tetlit Gwich’in Council in Fort McPherson, the Gwichya Gwich’in Council in Tsiigehtchic, and the Ehdiitat Gwich’in Council in Aklavik.
These organizations are distinct from the band councils, which administer the rights and benefits afforded to members under the Indian Act as opposed to the land claim – though in Aklavik and Tsiigehtchic, the DGOs and band councils serve as one.
“Effectively, the organizations have been cauterized between designated Gwich’in organizations and Indian Act band councils for the most part,” Kyikavichik explained. “In our largest communities, they are separate organizations and, at times, there can be differing mandates.
“However, the reality is that whether you’re a band council or whether you’re a designated Gwich’in organization, the rights and interests of our people should be at the forefront. The plan is to eventually merge the band council and the designated Gwich’in organization into a single community government.
“In order to do that, we do require the active participation of the chiefs and the band councils, and we do have some work to do in that regard.”
Community or regional self-government?
In Inuvik, the Nihtat Gwich’in Council and Inuvik Native Band are two separate organizations that each serve Gwich’in people in town. The two have been working together since 2018 to pursue their own self-government agreement.
Chief Robert Charlie-Tetlichi of the Inuvik Native Band said leaders at the time thought the process may work better at a community level.
“Between the Nihtat Gwich’in and the band, we’re able to maybe achieve a self-government agreement sooner rather than going with a regional process,” he said.
The Nihat Gwich’in Council has had a change of leadership, with new president Kelly McLeod elected to the position in March.
Now, McLeod said, the council is “reassessing” where it’s at in the process and how to proceed. A council meeting in Inuvik was held on Saturday to update members and discuss whether to continue pursuing its own agreement or rejoin the regional one.
Charlie-Tetlichi said he would like to see the band and council stick with the community model together, but the decision is ultimately “up to the membership to determine how we move forward.”
“If Nihtat rejoin the regional process, then the band will have to also meet with their membership to see how they want to proceed,” he said.
‘We’re not seeing anything’
The Nihtat Gwich’in Council and Inuvik Native Band aren’t alone in reconsidering the regional model.
Fort McPherson is currently one of three communities included in the GTC’s negotiations. However, Chief Wanda Pascal of the Teetl’it Gwich’in Band Council told Cabin Radio she plans to call a band meeting in the next week to reconsider whether to strike out on their own.
“That’s what we wanted all along,” Pascal said. “There’s just a small group of people that didn’t like that, but … it’s not up to me or my council – it’s up to the community. I really feel that I should go back to the community and ask them.”
Pascal said the move is prompted by growing frustration within the band – which is separate from the Tetlit Gwich’in Council, the local designated Gwich’in organization – regarding a perceived lack of collaboration and funding support from the GTC.
“The funding that goes to Tribal, they don’t help us out one bit,” she said. “We’re not seeing anything. It’s really hard to work with people that don’t want to work together.
“I don’t know how we’re going to work as a regional government if they can’t even work as partners now. It’s really frustrating.”
Pascal said she and band representatives would like to go to the Annual General Assembly in Inuvik this August to discuss these issues, but they will need to be invited by the GTC.
Cabin Radio attempted to contact all the Gwich’in chiefs. Chief Danny Greenland in Aklavik declined an interview request, while Chief Phillip Blake in Tsiigehtchic could not be reached.
Kyikavichik conceded one of the biggest challenges facing the Gwich’in self-government process is a lack of unity.
However, he committed to working to get each of the communities – including those who are going it alone – back on the same page.
“One of the things I ran on was bringing our communities together again,” he said. “I’ve always believed that the four groups and communities are strongest when we’re working together.
“I’m continuing to see what we can do to get back to our initial intent with the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, which was four communities working together for the benefit of all Gwich’in.
“That’s certainly going to be a challenge moving forward.”