Leaders from across the Northwest Territories had strong words for a parliamentary committee reviewing Bill C-15. The Tlicho and the Sahtu say the proposal to eliminate the territory's four regional land and water boards is driving them to take legal action.
The standing committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development held hearings on the federal legislation in Yellowknife Monday.
"Canada has returned to the old colonial ways of thinking they know what is best for us. They are silencing our voice. That is not the constitutional promise made in the Tlicho agreement," said Tlicho Grand Chief Eddie Erasmus. "We demand better. We will stand up to this proposed law and challenge it if need be."
"They are not giving us a choice. If the Mackenzie Valley Resources Management Act (MVRMA) can't protect the land and waters as it should, as per our claim we have no other choice," said Ethel Blondin-Andrew, chair of the Sahtu Secretariat Inc.
A superboard would include 11 board members, including one from each settled region. But leaders say communities need more input on new mines and development on their land.
"We each have our claims, the Gwich'in Tribal Council, the Tlicho, the Sahtu, how dare they suggest that whoever they deem to be on the board will do that either," said Blondin-Andrew. "We would lose our voice, we would lose the regional perspective."
Blondin-Andrew also says the federal government's decision to bundle devolution with changes to the land and water boards was an unwelcome surprise when it was presented to parliament.
Premier Bob McLeod told the committee of six MPs he didn't consider it his responsibility to inform aboriginal groups about the federal government's decision to bundle legislation that will transfer powers to the territorial government and merge the territory's four land and water boards.
McLeod says Ottawa wanted to wait until 2015 to implement devolution but he was concerned that would conflict with the next territorial election. He says the Prime Minister told him if devolution was to be implemented in April, 2014 the bill to transfer legislation to the territory would include the changes to the Mackenzie Resource Management Act.
Meanwhile, leaders from the two unsettled regions say they're not happy about the legislation being pushed forward when the First Nations are trying to establish how they will manage their own land first.
Dehcho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian said they're only 60 per cent through land claim negotiations and Bill C-15 would give their land away to the territory.
"Not one grain of sand belongs to the government of Canada," he said. "We want to do business with Canada. But how can we do business with Canada when they can't be trusted? Every inch of the way we have to fight."
"People right down the valley, people in the communities are just up in arms, wondering what is going on? Why is this being shoved down our throats?" Norwegian said.
'"Not one grain of sand belongs to the government of Canada." - Herb Norwegian, Dehcho Grand Chief
The Dene Nation also questioned Ottawa's authority to make decisions over treaty people.
"I'm very embarrassed and insulted you're carrying this out on the people who are rightful owners of this land," said Francois Paulette, former chief of Smith's Landing First Nation.
Despite the calls to split the bill and scrap plans to change the land and water boards, it is unlikely that will happen.
The committee can recommend amendments to Bill C-15 but the majority of members are conservative and a superboard is a priority of this majority conservative government.
Some leaders were skeptical their comments would have any affect on the committee.
"I ask myself, do I save my breath to cool my porridge here? Are we just barking into the wind?" said Don Balsillie, the Akaitcho's chief negotiator. "What sort of opportunity do we have as northerners to actually see some beneficial actual changes coming out of what is being discussed here today."