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Another milestone delayed by COVID-19, this time it's the Akaitcho agreement-in-principle

Last year, negotiators for the Akaitcho Dene First Nations expressed hope an agreement-in-principle would be completed by the end of June. But that won't be happening as restrictions on gatherings have limited the negotiators' ability to fully  consult with their people.

Key meetings with membership couldn't happen due to pandemic restrictions, says Chief Ernest Betsina

Yellowknives Dene Chief Ernest Betsina says he's frustrated about the latest delay in the Akaitcho Process, but says they're ready to continue as soon as COVID-19 restrictions lift. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Like so much else this spring, a long-awaited agreement-in-principle for the Akaitcho land claims process has been delayed because of COVID-19. 

Last year, negotiators for the Akaitcho Dene First Nations of Deninu Kue (Fort Resolution), the Łutsel K'e Dene, and the Yellowknives Dene (Ndilo and Dettah) expressed hope an agreement-in-principle would be completed by the end of June.

But that won't be happening as gathering restrictions have limited the negotiators' ability to fully consult with their people, said Chief Ernest Betsina, of the Yellowknives Dene in Ndilo.

"We can't reach an [agreement-in-principle] without our people," Betsina said. "Our negotiations team is more-or-less waiting to start gathering, to start informing on our negotiations." 

It's frustrating. But we just have to stay the course and be prepared ... for when COVID[-19] is over.- Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina, Yellowknives Dene First Nation

The agreement-in-principle is an important step in the negotiations on land, resources, and government on a large swath of land in the eastern portion of the Northwest Territories. It sets the outline of what the final agreement will look like. 

What are now 20 years of negotiations between the First Nations, the federal government and the territorial government appeared near a breakthrough last summer, when negotiators said they expected to reach that agreement within a year, hopefully paving the way for a final agreement.

But COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings sidelined meetings scheduled for this spring, meaning more consultation still needs to happen, Betsina said. 

"It's frustrating," Betsina said. "But we just have to stay the course and be prepared, be prepared for when COVID[-19] is over. We're having meetings and preparing to meet with our people." 

Meanwhile, the Dehcho First Nations continue their internal meetings over their unsettled claim, explained Dehcho Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian. They've moved all meetings to teleconference but hope to be able to hold a small meeting with leadership and an elder later this month, once the territory moves into Phase 2 of its Emerging Wisely plan, she said. 

Unsettled land claims are frequently cited as an economic roadblock in the territory and wrapping them up has long been cited as a goal by Indigenous leaders and successive territorial governments. 

Betsina is calling for government officials to remember how important land claims are, even as COVID-19 dominates their attention right now. 

"I call upon both governments to work together, to work with Akaitcho and Dehcho regions to settle," he said. "I'm hoping they have the mandate, to work with both regions to get settled." 

There are currently four land, resources and self-government agreements under negotiation in the Northwest Territories, as well as six standalone self-government agreements, and two communities working on transboundary deals. 

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