Scarred by countless clashes over everything from election results to band finances, chiefs within the Dene Nation in the Northwest Territories want to set up a tribunal system to mediate political disputes within northern First Nations.
Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus, who floated the idea to chiefs last week at the Dene National Assembly in Behchoko, N.W.T., said a tribunal could allow bands or chiefs to resolve disputes outside of the courts — saving bands a lot of money in legal costs and avoiding the animosity associated with lengthy court proceedings.
"We know the courts are not designed to understand our peoples and the way they function," said Erasmus, adding that too many First Nations disputes end up in court.
"And when the decision is made, people are still not happy and the community gets disrupted. On top of that, many times if you go to Indian Affairs, they say that they can't get involved."
Erasmus said it is too early to say what a tribunal body would look like, or whether it could make binding decisions. The Dene Nation is forming a steering committee to look at those issues, then present its findings at the nation's next leadership meeting later this fall.
Chiefs and elders who spoke about the proposal at the assembly said they support the idea.
Former Lutsel K'e Dene chief Archie Catholique, who was ousted from office in February 2004 by band members, said nobody should go throughthe court battle thathe endured.
"I lived it. I had gone through a pretty difficult time in the last three years," Catholique said. "So what is there but the courts? There's no winners. It splits the community in half, it's going to take a long time to get better."
Catholique, who was removed over allegations of misspent funds, filed a lawsuit in May 2005 claiming wrongful dismissal. He lost that battle, after a federal judge ruled that he was removed from office "according to the custom of the Lutsel K'e First Nation."
More recently, the losing candidate in a band election in Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T., threatened legal action if the results were not recounted. Russell Andre, who lost in a tiebreaker in the June 18 election, claimed the election process was flawed. But a recount confirmed the initial results.
"Too often we are incredibly brutal with each other, and it takes a long time to get over [it], whether we are right or wrong. There has to be a better way," said former N.W.T. premier Steven Kakfwi, who moderated the discussion on the tribunal proposal during the assembly.
"We have disputes in Tsiigehtchic, Colville Lake, places like Good Hope, so many of our communities over the last 30 years. We could do better."