Reluctant Dehcho Extend Mandate to Explore Land Selection

Fort Simpson, NT – June 28 — It took many long hours of passionate debate, dozens of proposals and amendments and clear unease among delegates, before the 15th Dehcho Assembly today passed a resolution mandating its negotiating team to continue “exploratory discussions” with Canada on an Agreement-in-Principle (AiP) based on land selection.

There was little enthusiasm for the proposed model and a number of speakers called for a return to the favored “shared stewardship” of the whole Dehcho territory. While there was high praise for the work of the negotiating team, led by chief negotiator Georges Erasmus, which reported extensively to the elders, chiefs and delegates over two days, there was grave mistrust of Canada’s position and motives.

Under its comprehensive claims policy, Canada will not negotiate a land and self-government agreement with the Dehcho unless it is based on land selection.

Dehcho speakers insisted the treaties their ancestors had signed in 1899 (Treaty 8) and 1921 (Treaty 11) were peace and friendship agreements which left the Dehcho Dene as “keepers and stewards” of their land and its resources. The Dehcho Process of negotiation, which both territorial and federal governments recognize, is designed to clarify and build upon the Treaties, resulting in a final agreement which ensures land and self-government and protects ecologically sensitive and harvesting areas.

To achieve this the Dehcho Final Agreement would have to assure the 10 communities in the Dehcho First Nations (DFN) that they will have sufficient lands, resources and governance powers to ensure that they can achieve economic self-reliance, cultural integrity and self-determination. In 2006, a special Assembly authorized the DFN negotiating team to explore an AiP based on land selection.

Some delegates objected to any further exploration. “We either tell them we have selection or not. But most of us don’t like the idea, this is our land and we will continue to keep it,” said Chief Berna Landry of Fort Providence.

Others said the Dehcho Process does not contain anything about land selection. “The government will take words like ‘exploration’ and twist them around like they have done ever since the treaties and change it to their liking,” charged elder Rita Clee from Fort Simpson.

Time and again the negotiators had to remind delegates that Canadian policy has always been land selection and if there is none, the governments could well end talks and funding.

“They no longer use the word ‘extinguishment’ of aboriginal rights but their policy still amounts to that,” negotiators said. “Your right is, of course, to say no and challenge the federal government to change its policy and you could do that in various ways but it would be long and hard and not necessarily successful. You could confront Canada but Canada is unlikely to change this policy which it has held for decades.”

Still others feared the talks could drag on for years expending great energy and see the further gradual erosion of their beloved land and culture. They wanted to know why land selection was the only option in Canada’s policies. Many recalled Canada’s rejection of their Dehcho Land Use Plan last year which occupied much of the past winter’s negotiating time only to demand more revisions.

In the end, the Assembly agreed that the Land Use Plan revisions and the AiP negotiations should be kept separate and that the LUP needed approval and urgent implementation while the AiP talks continued.

Grudgingly, as the long day ended, an final oft-amended resolution was passed “to continue the exploratory discussions on various models for achieving clarity and certainty regarding ownership, stewardship and jurisdiction over lands and resources.”

A special assembly will be held next year to review progress.

An additional resolution was passed instructing the negotiators to give high priority to the implementation of the LUP, regardless of progress in AiP negotiations.

“Land use planning has always been practiced by the Dehcho Dene and must always be practiced in the Dehcho Territory,” read its preamble.