The chief of Fort Liard, N.W.T., which is set to pursue its own land claim negotiations with the federal government, insists the community is not going to break away from existing land claims talks by the Dehcho First Nations.
Chief Steve Kotchea told CBC News that Fort Liard, which is part of the Dehcho, is planning to negotiate a land claim with Ottawa for traditional lands it claims to have in British Columbia and the Yukon.
Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl was expected to be in the hamlet of 600, located in the southwestern corner of the territory, Monday to sign a framework agreement with Fort Liard leaders to start land claim negotiations.
Word of the upcoming Fort Liard talks shocked some Dehcho First Nations leaders and even some local residents, who fear those talks could jeopardize land claims for the entire Dehcho region, and even create a rift between Fort Liard and other Dehcho communities.
"It doesn't help our case at all. You know, like, knowing the government, they always love to play conquer and divide, and this is a prime example of them doing that," Chief Keyna Norwegian of the Liidlii Kue First Nation in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., told CBC News on Friday.
"I just wish that the people would really consider that and know that we are stronger if we are united."
But Kotchea said Fort Liard is simply trying to assert its traditional ties to lands outside the Northwest Territories, and the agreement to negotiate for those lands does not affect his community's standing as part of the Dehcho.
"We'll still be working together. We're not pulling away from any negotiations that's happening within the Dehcho," Kotchea said Monday, calling his community's talks a "stand-alone" arrangement with Ottawa.
"We're doing what we think is good for us because we feel that we've been left so far behind on the Dehcho process. We asked the Dehcho to get a mandate to negotiate across the border and that's just how it got started."
The Dehcho First Nations, which include 11 communities in the southwest region of the Northwest Territories, have been in talks since 1999 toward a land claim and a self-government agreement with the federal government.
It is the only aboriginal group without a land claim agreement along the route of the proposed 1,200-kilometre Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline.
Those talks have stalled several times in recent years, as the two sides have been split on major issues such as a land-use plan for the Decho region.
At the First Nations' general assembly last month in Kakisa, N.W.T., Dehcho members voted in favour of commencing land claim negotiations that would include having the Dehcho select parcels of federal land from the government.
Kotchea said the Dehcho's land selection process has not included Fort Liard's traditional lands outside of the N.W.T. border.
The agreement Strahl was to sign Monday simply gives Fort Liard and the federal government the go-ahead to work out details. It was not outlined how much land is to be negotiated, or where that land is located.