5 things you need to know about the Akaitcho agreement-in-principle

For the past 19 years, Fred Sangris, Robert Sayine and Archie Catholique have been hammering out a land-claim agreement with the Canadian government. Now, they say they are reaching the end of this road.

19 years in the making, Akaitcho government negotiators say they are close to reaching a land-claim agreement

These three men: Fred Sangris of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, Archie Catholique of the Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation and Robert Sayine of the Deninu Kue First Nation, are the Akaitcho government's negotiators. (Mark Hadlari/CBC)

The key for Akaitcho government negotiators is settling a land-claim agreement that preserves sovereignty.

For the past 19 years, Fred Sangris, Robert Sayine and Archie Catholique have been hammering out a way to do that with the Canadian government.

Now, they say they are reaching the end of this road.

It's something they're excited about. The three negotiators joined Trails End host Lawrence Nayally to speak about their new agreement-in-principle, how they got here, and what's next.

Here are five important takeaways from that conversation.

The Akaitcho government is essentially trying to get its original oral treaty carved in stone

On July 25, 1900, Akaitcho chiefs met with federal officials in Fort Resolution to negotiate a way to coexist. The oral agreement they came to became known to Dene leaders as a "peace and friendship" treaty. It acknowledged Dene sovereignty while giving a way for the two nations to "live side by side until the end of time," according to Fred Sangris.

Sangris said those federal officials went back to Ottawa and wrote the treaty down — from their own perspective — and this is what set off decades of struggle between the Canadian government and the Dene. The written treaties stripped Dene governments of their sovereignty and enshrined Canada as a colonial authority.

The Dene eventually took their case to court.

"The court decision came out that Indigenous people did have rights and the written treaties and oral treaties were not the same thing," said Sangris.

So, it was back to the negotiating table. In 2000, Akaitcho leaders signed a framework agreement with the then-federal minister of Indigenous Affairs and then-N.W.T. premier Stephen Kakfwi.  

"Since that time, to this day, it's the 19th year and we are still negotiating," said Sangris.

The goal is to extinguish the extinguishment clause

According to Sangris, the federal government has always included an extinguishment clause to land claims that have already been settled in the North.

"It's very unconstitutional to ask one Indigenous group to give up all their rights," he said. "There's another word called certainty, but if you read up on certainty ... that word means 'terminate.' We have to come up with another word that's going to have two nations living side by side, respecting each other, but not giving up anything. Being a real, true government. That's the approach we want to go."

Akaitcho citizens will be asked to step up

Sangris says the next six to eight months will be spent finalizing the Akaitcho agreement-in-principle, and after that leaders will be working on a final agreement.

That means, within the next couple of years, Akaitcho citizens will be asked to familiarize themselves with the agreement so they are prepared to vote on it.

This agreement-in-principle doesn't affect the general public ... yet

Any discussions relating to the general public are still being discussed internally, said Sangris.

"We are not there yet," he said. "Maybe in the future once we get close to the vote maybe things can be sorted out."

Akaitcho negotiators will be visiting the communities soon

The Akaitcho government has plans to travel to Yellowknife, Lustelk'e and Fort Resolution to do workshops and talk to people about the agreement.

There will be a consultation process with the general public in Yellowknife, as well.

Written by Randi Beers, based on an interview by Lawrence Nayally