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What could help people understand land claims and self-governance?

Marlisa Brown's recently published policy paper makes recommendations for more accessible land claims education in the NWT
Marlisa Brown's recently published policy paper makes recommendations for more accessible land claims education in the NWT. Photo: Supplied

More should be done to help people make sense of treaties, land claim and self-governance agreements, a Gwich’in Yellowknife resident argues in a new policy paper.

The paper, published by the Gordon Foundation, is written by Marlisa Brown, one of 10 young leaders selected to participate in the latest Jane Glasgow Northern Fellowship, a policy and leadership development program for young northerners.

“This paper reflects my own exploration into wanting to understand what modern treaties mean to me as a Gwich’in person and of settler ancestry,” Brown wrote in her paper.

Born in Inuvik, Brown grew up a participant in the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement.



As a teen, she was encouraged by her parents and community leaders to read the original two-volume, 370-page land claim agreement to familiarize herself with her rights and history. She found the agreement’s dense legal language inaccessible and struggled to understand it.

With the policy recommendations Brown makes in her paper, she hopes to empower people to be more involved in discussions about the shape their governments take.

“I now feel a sense of responsibility, as we are entering a new time of self-government agreements, to ensure that my children, and their children’s children, are better equipped with the tools to learn about these agreements,” the report reads.

Brown’s paper makes three main recommendations that she hopes will strengthen land claim and self-government education and training in the territory.



Better digital access

The first recommendation is that all land claim and self-government agreements be digitized to make them easier to access and use.

As it stands, treaties, land claims and self-government agreements are usually available as PDFs. These do permit digital access, including listening instead of reading the document, but Brown said this doesn’t go far enough.

She recommends that all documents be available for reading and listening in the appropriate Indigenous languages.

This would increase accessibility for those with limited English literacy skills.

Brown told Cabin Radio this is especially important considering oral traditions, where talking is the main means by which history is passed between generations.

Moving beyond PDFs could offer more interaction with the agreement, Brown explained.

The research paper describes how digital versions could include chronological histories of the amendments made to the agreements, as well as background stories of how provisions in the agreements came about.

Brown’s vision of digitized land claim and self-government agreements is one where the agreements are not fixed, unchangeable documents from the past but describe ongoing and possibly evolving relationships.



Local education and training

Brown’s second and third recommendations encourage more youth to participate in agreement negotiations and implementations, and seek to make education around negotiations more accessible.

Her desire to understand and have power in the implementation of her own land claim agreement took her south to Edmonton and then to Ottawa, where she studied Indigenous policy administration.

She wants this education to be available in the NWT.

In her paper, she calls for the creation of a centre for northern Indigenous governance at the polytechnic university, set to open in 2025, that is emerging from what is now Aurora College.

She imagines the centre as a space that brings together researchers and learners from the territory around key questions of self-governance.

Brown also calls for the government’s continued support for and creation of internships and summer positions for students interested in working in negotiations, implementation and policy development projects related to land claim and self-government.

While Brown emphasized she doesn’t want these opportunities to be limited to youth, she does believe it’s important that there be more ways for young beneficiaries and participants to contribute to the evolution of nation-to-nation agreements.

The recommendations are in line with Brown’s work as co-founder of Treaty Talks NWT, an organization that creates spaces for youth to learn about the territory’s treaties.



Most of Treaty Talks’ programming has been virtual throughout the pandemic, but this summer youth will be able to participate in an on-the-land treaty education camp.

Next steps

Brown said the Gordon Foundation will distribute her policy recommendations to a list that includes territorial and federal government ministers, Aurora College, and the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations policy thinktank.

“I’m not speaking on behalf of government, I’m not speaking on behalf of my First nation,” said Brown, who works for the GNWT on the implementation of land claims and self-government agreements.

“I’m speaking as a resident of the NWT, who kind-of sees both sides to these worlds where we need to come together, and we need to make this a priority.

“More can be done, but these are stepping stones to get to where we could be going.”

To date, there are four land claim agreements in the Northwest Territories. These are the 1984 Inuvialuit Land Claim Agreement, the 1992 Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, the 1993 Sahtu Dene and Métis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, and the 2003 Tłı̨chǫ Agreement.

The Gwich’in Tribal Council has been negotiating a self-government agreement since it signed the original land claim agreement in 1992. The GTC is currently on an engagement tour across Gwich’in nations with the intent of hearing from different communities about what Gwich’in governance would look like.