Premier and Dene National Chief at odds over federal relations

A file photo of Norman Yakeleya. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio.
A file photo of Norman Yakeleya. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

The Premier of the Northwest Territories says federal government ‘uncertainty’ is damaging work on land claims and reconciliation. 

Addressing the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples earlier this week, Bob McLeod said finalizing land claim or self-government agreements was a high priority for his government – but was being held up by what he suggested is a lack of clarity in Ottawa’s approach to Indigenous governments.

“One of the challenges of the current federal engagement with Indigenous peoples is that it has created uncertainty and has slowed the process of negotiation,” said McLeod in prepared remarks.

“Whether or not it was intended, a lot of promises have been heard by Indigenous governments about new opportunities for broader negotiations without clear mandates.”



Those observations came after McLeod urged the federal government to ensure its policies considered “the jurisdiction of the Government of the Northwest Territories, and the devolution of responsibilities most recently with respect to land and resources.”

‘Their opinion’

However, following a separate Assembly of First Nations (AFN) meeting regarding the federal government’s plan to recognize and implement Indigenous rights, Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said his organization was far more interested in developing its relationship with Ottawa than with the territorial government.

“The Premier and the Cabinet have their opinion,” said Yakeleya, whose recent, successful election campaign included a pledge to lessen territorial government influence over the NWT’s Indigenous communities.

“Canada wants to deal directly with the Indigenous people,” he said. “They’ll have to work out a system where the Government of the Northwest Territories is going to be somehow advised or consulted on any changes.”



Yakeleya, who as Dene National Chief also serves as the AFN’s regional chief, said the federal government was “going from a denial of rights to a recognition of rights” by proposing a new framework for relations with Indigenous peoples.

He added: “The GNWT is a creature of the Ottawa establishment. We’re very clear that we want to have that relationship with Ottawa.

“This whole process needs to be led by First Nations people. We have a history of broken processes and broken treaties. We will have to move very slowly.”

Transformative projects

McLeod told senators he believed the Northwest Territories offered a model for the federal government to follow in how it has approached reconciliation, calling his territory “an example of how real partnership … based on mutual respect and recognition can lead to increased political self-determination and economic participation for the North’s Indigenous peoples.”

Asked to comment on that, Yakeleya said: “Let me just say that they have their opinion.”

Meanwhile, industry minister Wally Schumann and the territory’s chamber of mines made presentations to the separate Senate Committee on the Arctic this week.

Schumann outlined the territory’s ambitious raft of infrastructure plans and made a now-familiar pitch for federal assistance, hailing the projects’ potential “transformative impact” while adding, “with our small population, we can’t get there alone.”

Gary Vivian, president of the NWT & Nunavut Chamber of Mines, said in a news release after his presentation: “We reminded Senators that … Canada was once a strong participant in northern mineral development, providing financial support for transportation and power infrastructure and even exploration.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a 40-year gap in federal partnership, and now need to make up for lost time.”