North

Lack of consultation stalls Athabasca Dene land-claim agreement, says Yellowknives Dene Chief

'We have a responsibility to meaningfully consult with these communities in order to understand and work through the issues they have brought forward,' says a statement from Minister Carolyn Bennett's office.

First Nation took concerns to Crown because Athabasca Denesuline wouldn’t negotiate ‘chief-to-chief’

Yellowknives Dene Chief Ed Sangris says his First Nation raised concerns with the federal government over an impending land-claim agreement that overlaps with Akaitcho territory. (Richard Gleeson/CBC)

Some Akaitcho First Nations leaders says a group of First Nations in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan have not done enough consultation before settling a land claim on a large swath of land in southeast Northwest Territories.

Yellowknives Dene First Nation's Detah Chief Ed Sangris says those concerns were taken to the federal government, a move that has stalled a land-claim agreement 19 years in the making.

The Athabasca Denesuline and Ghotelnene K'odtineh Dene were on the verge of initialling a final agreement in Yellowknife earlier this month when Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett's office suddenly pulled the plug.

A statement from her office says Indigenous groups in the Northwest Territories expressed concerns with the terms of the draft agreement, and the impact that agreement would have on their communities and rights: "We have a responsibility to meaningfully consult with these communities in order to understand and work through the issues they have brought forward."

Consultation through Crown

Ron Robillard, a negotiator for the Athabasca Denesuline, disputes that. He says his group has been consulting with Northwest Territories Indigenous groups with claims to the area, and not only has the Crown been aware of it, but has been facilitating those negotiations.

"We thought we had completed all of our consultations," he said. "It wasn't the Athabasca Dene consulting. It's the Crown that takes that role."

Robillard said the draft agreement has been moving back and forth between the Athabasca and N.W.T. Indigenous groups since 2016. 

A delegation of five Dene First Nations from northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba held a public demonstration on Wednesday in Ottawa. (Athabasca Denesuline Final Agreement - North of 60 Facebook page/Supplied)

"[The N.W.T. groups] raised some concerns but they were very minor," he said. "We changed the wording in our agreement to accommodate that. And we sent it back to them. It's been going back and forth like that."

But Sangris says he doesn't know anything about negotiations through the Crown. He said his government wanted to negotiate chief-to-chief, but the Athabasca Dene only wanted to consult through negotiators.

"That's not a way of consulting with other First Nations," he said. 

In response to that, Robillard said his group has been consulting with the Akaitcho and Métis in the Northwest Territories exactly as the federal government requested, and now he feels like the goal posts have suddenly moved.

"The responsibility has to go back to Canada to work out these things with Indigenous groups," he said. "We've done all we can with consulting our final agreement."

Several claims to area

Many Indigenous groups have interest in asserting their treaty rights to the same section of the southeastern N.W.T. The Athabasca Dene's claim is marked in orange. (Government of Canada)

Numerous Indigenous groups lay claim to overlapping pieces of land in the southeast area of the Northwest Territories. 

In 2016, Minister Bennett appointed a special representative to visit the area, speak to the groups involved, and make recommendations on best practices for settling land claims that are fair for everybody.

After consulting with nine Indigenous groups, the territorial government and Crown lawyer Thomas Isaac released a report with a set of recommendations. Essentially, that report calls on Indigenous groups with claims to the area to come to their own agreements with help from the Government of Canada and the territorial government. 

The report also calls on the Crown and territorial government to make decisions with transparency and "always act honourably" when dealing with Indigenous rights. 

Robillard says in fact, the Crown is simply "hiding behind consultation as an excuse to not initial the agreement." 

"It's not in good faith negotiations," he says.

The Athabasca Dene's claim to the land is still tied up in a lawsuit against the Crown that, up until last week, was being settled out of court.

Now, Robillard says the Athabasca Dene are asking the court to review Bennett's decision. 

"We're just waiting for a response," he said.