Dehcho Assembly Grapples with Next Stages of Negotiations

FORT SIMPSON, NT – June 27 – As the participants in the 15th annual Dehcho First Nations Assembly settled into their seats here today to struggle once again to move forward with the Dehcho Process towards an Agreement-in-Principle (AiP) which will guide their negotiators towards a final agreement with Canada, the mindset of the leadership was clear. This agreement was not just a mere exchange of land, money and power, it was about the heart and soul of apeople who have occupied this territory for thousands of years.

The dualism of the dominant culture, Canada, which separates and compartmentalizes life into various areas does not exist here. There is no part of the Dehcho world or its peoples’ lives where the land is not present. The land is always there. It is part of the politics, the culture, the economics, the negotiations, everything. It is who the Dehcho are and how they act. It is ever-present.

The negotiating team, led by Georges Erasmus, the chief negotiator, described the past year’s activities, including the frustrations of dealing with governments who refused to approve and implement that Dehcho Land Use Plan because it “protected” too much land from economic development. Canada and Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) also wanted implementation of the Dehcho Land Use Plan which is the centrepiece of the Dehcho position, tied to an AiP based on land selection. After a winter of delays, an agreement was finally reached in April this year on a way to revise the Plan so it can be approved by all parties and finally implemented.

An AiP is not a final, legally binding document, it gives directions on how issues will be dealt with. The Dehcho negotiators tabled a draft in April called a General Agreement in Principle (GAiP) which had been approved by leadership. A further and extensive revision was brought to this Assembly for its consideration. If it is approved, it will be tabled at the next negotiating session in September, replacing the April version.

Until this Assembly DFN negotiators have had a mandate from the Assembly to “explore” land selection, not negotiate an AiP based on land selection. The Dehchhas always wanted “shared stewardship” of the entire Dehcho territory. Governments rejected this outright. But land selection is much different from shared stewardship.

The GAiP now before the Assembly includes many other items such as the definition of a Dehcho Dene; enrolment, powers of regional Dehcho government, continued land use planning, quantum of land, financing Dehcho governments, ratification, culture and language, equality between Metis and status Dene, building upon and clarifying treaties 8 and 11, education, housing, hunting fishing and trapping rights, a justice system and a host of other details.

When all these matters were explained, the meeting responded. The Assembly heard from many of the elders and others. They supported the negotiators and praised them for their hard work. They stressed the need for unity among the 10 communities.

“We have to work together on this. We have learn from each other. We have to be truthful. It doesn’t matter if is takes 20 years,” said Pat Martel of

Gabe Hardisty from Wrigley warned against infighting. “Our elders who signed the treaties were strong people, and they were prophets, they worked as one. If we fight among ourselves it only gives the government a chance to think they can get what they want.” He said, too, that the Assembly must be looking to future for children and grandchildren.

“White people only see dollars, we see the land. Our elders and prophets said ‘don’t give up the land’. They may not be with us today but we know they were right. This land is ours.”

And, Leo Norwegian said Dehcho have lived on their land for thousands of years and people would laugh at them if they sold their land. “Money, money, money that’s all we hear from governments. Maybe some of you are confused, maybe we need to support the negotiators more but whatever, we have to work together in our way and keep things in our hands. Our negotiators are working very hard, we need to support them and accept help from some of the experts. But it is our land.”

It took all morning and into the afternoon in the open forum, questions and answers. Then the more than 80 elders, chiefs and councillors broke into small groups for the rest of the day to talk about land, governance and culture. Tomorrow they will report back to the Assembly.

The participants do not take this Dehcho Process lightly. It is serious business. It is about the land, the people, the future and it is a special process, the Dehcho Process.