Colville Lake says it doesn't want N.W.T. government 'standing in the way' of negotiations

In a strongly worded letter, Colville Lake leaders say they’ll be pursuing a bilateral agreement with Canada after three years of ‘largely unproductive’ talks involving the territory.

Chief Wilbert Kochon says government has failed to honour UNDRIP rights in ‘unproductive’ talks

Wilbert Kochon, chief of Behdezi Ahda First Nation in Colville Lake, is one of the signatories to the letter, which says the First Nation will pursue a bilateral agreement with Canada. (John Last/CBC)

The N.W.T. is "standing in the way" of meaningful progress on Indigenous self-government, according to a strongly worded letter from Behdzi Ahda First Nation.

As a result, the First Nation is pursuing an agreement with Canada — with or without the territorial government at the table.

Wilbert Kochon, chief of Colville Lake's Behdzi Ahda First Nation, and David Codzi, president of the related Ayoni Keh Land Corporation, sent the letter to Premier Caroline Cochrane last month.

The letter, tabled by MLA Rylund Johnson in the Legislative Assembly on Feb. 7, replies to a request for recommendations on how to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

In the letter, Kochon and Codzi lament "three largely unproductive years trying to advance negotiations with the [territorial government]."

We don't believe the [territorial government] should be standing in the way.- Letter from Behdzi Ahda First Nation

The letter adds that the territory has failed to update mandates sent to negotiators to align with UNDRIP or with federal priorities.

"No explicit connection was made between implementing [UNDRIP] and making progress on our agreement," it reads.

Behdzi Ahda First Nation is one of a dozen in the midst of self-government negotiations with the territory and the federal government.Many of their criticisms are echoed in a letter on UNDRIP implementation sent by the Nihtat Gwich'in Council, which is pursuing its own self-government agreement, also tabled Friday.

    The territory is frequently accused by Indigenous leadership of holding up negotiations, which in some cases have dragged on for decades.

    Codzi, president of the Ayoni Keh Land Corporation, photographed during hearings on caribou conservation in Colville Lake in January. Codzi and Kochon sent a letter to the premier last month. (John Last/CBC)

    MLAs listed concluding negotiations and implementing UNDRIP high on their list of priorities in October.

    But the government's mandate, released last week, establishes no clear timelines for concluding agreements. Their negotiating positions aren't due to be updated for more than a year.

    I have scared them all.- Caroline Cochrane, N.W.T. premier 

    On UNDRIP, it promises only that the government will draft an "implementation plan" by the summer of 2022.

    The letter says at Colville Lake's last negotiating session, the government didn't offer a plan on how their position would "evolve."

    Questions on how they will proceed, the letter notes, were "referred … back to the bureaucracy."

    Negotiating positions in violation of UNDRIP

    Both Behdzi Ahda First Nation and the Nihtat Gwich'in Council take issue with "Core Principles and Objectives," standards imposed on Indigenous governments who want to take control of key social services like health and education.

    Indigenous groups say those conditions violate Article 18 of UNDRIP, which affirms Indigenous people's "right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights."

    In contrast to the territory, the letters say, the federal government suspended current negotiating mandates while it wrestled with implementing the declaration.

    In the legislature last Friday, Johnson questioned the premier on whether the negotiators' mandate and the territory's core principles and objectives have been updated.

    Cochrane said negotiators' mandates "change quite often," but the core principles and objectives had not been reviewed in "quite a while."

    In her government's mandate, released last week, Cochrane provided no clear timelines on concluding negotiations, and said an 'implementation plan' for UNDRIP would take until near the end of her mandate. (Mario De Ciccio Radio-Canada/CBC)

    When Johnson asked if the territory would redraft those principles, Cochrane said she was "totally open to changing whatever we need to do, to work better with Indigenous governments."

    "I have scared them all," she said, noting she sits with Indigenous negotiators during discussions. "They don't know where this premier is coming from."

    Could bring $5M to community, letter says

    Colville Lake's letter says new federal fiscal policies and mandates provide an opportunity to conclude a bilateral agreement that would "immediately improve social wellness" and give the community access to as much as $5 million in new federal funding.

    "We don't believe the [territorial government] should be standing in the way."

    Going forward, the letter says, the territory will be welcome at the table only "as an observer."

    "We are respectfully asking the [territory] to step aside while your government takes the time to determine how it intends to proceed," the letter reads.

    The Department of Executive and Indigenous Affairs, which handles negotiations for the territory, did not respond to requests for comment.