N.W.T. First Nation prepares for important vote that gives it powers over its land

The Kátł'odeeche Fırst Nation near Hay River, N.W.T., is gearing up for an important vote that will decide how much responsibility it will have over its lands. 

'[Membership] wants to see something good on this reserve,' chief says  

April Martel, chief of the Kátł'odeeche First Nation, says the land code would change many things about life for members of her nation. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

One First Nation in the N.W.T. is gearing up for an important vote that will decide how much responsibility it will have over reserve lands. 

The Kátł'odeeche Fırst Nation near Hay River, N.W.T., will be voting on its custom land code Wednesday. If approved, the land code gives the First Nation power over its lands, including the freedom to draft its own land laws, create its own budgets and run its own environmental protection programs — without federal oversight. 

"Now we [could] go to banks and have banks look at us and say, 'yes, now we can finance you under the land code instead of having to wait a very long time for [the federal government] to approve it,'" Chief April Martel told CBC. 

The nation needs 53 votes, or ten per cent of its roughly 500 eligible voters, to implement the new code. 

Land codes only available for federal reserves  

In 1996, former prime minister Jean Chrétien's government introduced the First Nations Land Management Act, which lets First Nations opt out of 40 sections of the Indian Act that deal with land ownership, environmental protection and money management. 

The act also established the First Nations Land Management Resource Centre, an organization that supports First Nations with every step of the land code process. 

[First Nations] with land codes can process land transactions ... a lot faster.- Meko Nicholas, executive director of the First Nations Land Management Resource Centre 

Meko Nicholas, the centre's executive director, said there are challenges with the land code process — but every First Nation he's worked with would never go back to the old system.

"[First Nations] with land codes can process land transactions … a lot faster [than the federal government]. We can do it much more efficiently," Nicholas said.

A welcome sign stands at the highway entrance of Kátł'odeeche First Nation. It's one of two reserves in the N.W.T. that have the option to create its own land code. (Anna Desmarais/CBC )

The land code option is only available to federal reserves. Kátł'odeeche First Nation and Salt River First Nation near Fort Smith, N.W.T., are the only two reserves in the territory.

There were 96 reserve nations that have signed land code agreements in the last two decades

Nation waited 10 months for federal approval 

Kátł'odeeche First Nation's 42-page land code puts in place a committee that will "recommend laws, resolutions, policies and practices" to chief and council on how the land code is being used. Any reports written by the committee or chief and council will be made publicly available to nation members.

Meko Nicholas is the executive director of the First Nation Land Management Resource Centre. (Submitted by Meko Nicholas)

Martel said her First Nation started the land code process in 2017 under previous chief Roy Fabian. The nation went door-to-door to get input from elders, hosted community meetings and created a land code committee to draft up their vision for the nation. 

Nicholas said the federal government provides up to $150,000 over a two-year period to help First Nations pay for any expenses that come up during the development of their land code. The federal government also has to sign on to the final draft of the land code agreement to formally allow a vote to take place. 

Martel said it took the federal government 10 months to sign on to their draft land code, pushing back their vote from late February to the last week of July. 

[The federal government] takes forever in the process.- April Martel, chief of Kátł'odeeche First Nation 

That's one example why Martel believes the nation would be better off making its own decisions without involvement from the federal government. 

"[The federal government] takes forever in the process," Martel said. "If they're trying to hold us back, we need to move forward." 

CBC contacted the federal Department of Indigenous Services Canada last week for comment, but has not heard back yet.

Land code effective immediately after vote

If the vote goes through, the land code will be considered "operational," meaning it goes into effect immediately. 

Any money set aside for the First Nation's operations will also be immediately transferred to chief and council, Martel said.

Land erosion on the side of the Kátł'odeeche First Nation side of the Hay River. The land code would give the First Nation ways of protecting its natural environment without any federal oversight. (Anna Desmarais/CBC )

That's when the real work begins, said Nicholas with the First Nations Land Management Resource Centre.

"Creating environmental management plans can be an expensive undertaking and some would argue that [federal] funding really doesn't address that," Nicholas said. "But the important thing is to start somewhere." 

The nation will hire a land code clerk that will set priorities, along with chief and council, about what gets developed first. That person will also make sure that the land code is implemented properly in the community, Martel said. 

Martel said the committee already has some potential project ideas, like new housing, RV parks, a golf course — or even a casino. 

"[Membership] wants to see something good on this reserve," Martel said. 

If the vote fails, Martel said that's not the end of the land code dream for her nation. It just means more work needs to be done to find a draft that everyone can agree on, she continued. 

Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday for on and off-reserve members of the Kátł'odeeche First Nation.