Indigenous leaders look to new N.W.T. MLAs to repair frayed relationship

Leaders of two Indigenous governments are hoping a new N.W.T. Legislative Assembly represents an opportunity for a fresh start.

Group discusses funding and future of decision-making in the territory

Indigenous leaders met with the newly elected 19th Legislative Assembly Thursday to lay out their expectations for the next four years. (Katie Toth/CBC)

Leaders of two Indigenous governments are hoping a new N.W.T. Legislative Assembly will be a fresh start in the North — and an opportunity to repair a frayed relationship. 

"This assembly, I think, has a lot of work to do to rebuild trust and respect with the Indigenous organizations because it really fell off the table," said Duane Smith, chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, at a meeting with Indigenous government leaders and territorial MLAs on Thursday. 

He said his group had tried similar meetings with sitting premiers and found little success, which is why he was glad to speak with legislators before they settle in to the next session. 

This assembly is made up of mostly fresh faces — 12 out of the 19 MLAs are about to sit their first term — and for the first time, almost half are women.

Smith added that ever since the Inuvialuit Final Agreement was signed, his corporation has been butting heads with territorial authorities. 

"We got a problem with this government — not only the previous one, but for 35 years — where we have had to constantly raise our rights."

A file photo of Duane Smith, chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation. He says new leaders need to rebuild trust with Indigenous groups. (Senate of Canada/Jade Thériault)

At the roundtable, held at Yellowknife's Tree of Peace centre, leaders demanded to be involved in the writing of new legislation and called for the territorial government to make sure its employees understand their treaties and land-claim agreements. 

Smith also called for a change in how the territorial government approaches funding issues. He said in the past, it had "resisted" a working relationship, and at times opposed funding to the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, telling federal officials that "funding should go directly to the GNWT [government of the Northwest Territories]." 

We got a problem with this government. ​​​​- Duane Smith, IRC

He pointed to some of the gains he said his organization had achieved working with the federal government's Inuit Crown Partnership Committee, including $36 million for one year to support his region on issues like language, suicide prevention, and health. 

"I was reluctant to say some of these things we've achieved with the federal government because we've seen the GNWT run to Ottawa on a consistent basis trying to get the funding taken away from us," he said.

Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, grand chief of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, is calling for more funding for language and culture. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, president of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, called for more funding for language, as well as for cultural heritage staff and Indigenous knowledge keepers.

"We need to work together to revisit how the funding gets to our communities," she said.

MLAs ready for fresh start

Jackson Lafferty, who represents Monfwi, said a new government is an opportunity to rebuild trust. 

Lafferty, who was the Speaker in his previous term, said he saw communication break down in the last session. 

He called for more regular meetings with Indigenous leaders and said senior bureaucrats should be in communities more often to get to know Indigenous issues. 

"We as elected officials can do our part, but we need our senior staff to do their part as well," he said.

Toward the end of her briefing, Greenland-Morgan quoted former premier Bob McLeod, who she said once stated, "Indigenous peoples are not just part of decision making in the N.W.T. ... we are the decision makers."

"I really like that statement … but if the action from the territorial government doesn't support that statement, then it's just words."