Leaders from five Dene First Nations in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan are slamming the federal government for suddenly backing away from a land and resource deal after concerns were raised with Indigenous groups in the Northwest Territories.
“Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Bennett, you have betrayed us,” said Ron Robillard, chief negotiator at Athabasca Denesuline Nation in Saskatchewan.
“You are not honourable and you are not true to your words.”
The leaders want the federal government to recognize their lands and rights north of the 60th parallel in an area known as Nuhenéné, where they say they have hunted and harvested for thousands of years. The deal they’ve been pursuing with Ottawa has come to be known as the North of 60 Agreement.
Email halting negotiations came at 11th hour
After 18 years of negotiations, the leaders said they believed an agreement was imminent.
They travelled to Yellowknife last Wednesday to initial the maps to recognize traditional territory in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
But at the last minute, they say they received an email from the federal government telling them Ottawa is not prepared to initial the maps until further notice.
“As a Dene person, to be in a position where I was starting to trust the government was a very special thing,” Robillard said.
“I was very shocked.”
The leaders received a letter from Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett, saying her commitment to initialling the maps had been deferred until further notice without explanation.
They say Bennett’s comments were followed up by an email from the chief negotiator, saying all scheduled negotiation meetings had been cancelled until further notice.
“I feel the government is saying that we’re not people,” said Louie Mercredi, chief of Fond Du Lac Denesuline First Nation.
“I urge Minister Bennett to do the right thing, to reverse her decision, to initial the agreement and let us proceed with the ratification. Anything less is dishonourable.”
NDP takes feds to task
Niki Ashton, NDP MP for Churchill—Keewatinook Aski, raised the matter in question period the day after.
“This is an egregious act of bad faith,” Ashton said. “It sets the Dene communities back for years and it is the opposite of reconciliation, so what will the minster do to fix this major problem?”
Bennett defended her decision.
“There have been discussions and concerns raised by Indigenous Peoples in the Northwest Territories,” Bennett said. “Until I feel that those consultations are met to my satisfaction, we will have to delay the initialling of that agreement.”
Mercredi and Robillard joined a delegation of Denesuline from Black Lake First Nation, Fond du Lac First Nation, Hatchet Lake First Nation, Northlands Denesuline First Nation and Sayisi Dene First Nation, who came to Ottawa on Wednesday to hold a public demonstration outside of the prime minister’s office.
The delegation did not get a meeting with Bennett or Prime Minister Trudeau, but Georgina Jolibois, NDP MP of Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, brought it up in question period in the Commons today.
“Meaningful reconciliation is about working with Indigenous people and meeting in good faith,” said Georgina Jolibois of Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River.
“Will the minister meet with the Dene while they’re in Ottawa and explain why she broke her promise face-to-face?”
PM defends consultations
Trudeau responded by acknowledging concerns have been raised by Indigenous groups in the Northwest Territories about the terms of the agreement, and their impact on their communities and rights
“No relationship is more important to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples,” he said.
“We have a responsibility to meaningfully consult with communities in order to understand, work through the issues that they have brought forward.”
Garry Bailey, president of the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, told CBC News that some in the region worry about the management of hunting resources and fear the Athabasca Denesuline are trying to fast-track the negotiation process.
The Dene acknowledge concerns are being raised by Indigenous groups in the Northwest Territories, but they say this shouldn’t end negotiations.
“I have to go back and tell my people we have been betrayed,” Robillard said.
“When you take away a community’s hope, you take away apart of their future and you destroy some of the past.”
Agreement includes financial component, harvesting rights
Expectations for an agreement were high, according to the Dene leaders.
If the agreement is passed into law, the Dene would enter into a new modern treaty, establish a traditional Athabasca settlement area, get financial compensation from the federal government and a recognition of harvesting rights.
If someone tried to take their land, they would be notified and consulted before anything happened.
In the ’70s and ’80s, Canada negotiated comprehensive land claim agreements with other Indigenous groups, but not with the Athabasca Denesuline.
The federal government has said “it was determined” that the Athabasca Denesuline had no legal rights north of 60 in the Northwest Territories and what later became Nunavut.
The Dene say they are worried that tourist camps will be established in the region and parcels of land given to other groups.
“For thousands of years, way before Canada even existed, before the borders were put in, we called Nuhenéné our land,” Mercredi said.
“It is strange to negotiate for something that’s been ours for so many years.”
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