New MLAs need new vision to advance self-gov't in N.W.T., leaders say

The territorial government has earned a reputation for hindering negotiations. Could a new assembly be any better?

Grand chief, former premier say territorial government has hindered negotiations so far

Former N.W.T. premier Stephen Kakfwi said 'it was our government, it was my bureaucracy, my cabinet, that caused the most headaches and problems for everybody,' in land claim negotiations. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

Like assemblies that came before it, the 18th Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly vowed to work toward resolving unsettled land-claim and self-government agreements during its term.

But while a number of communities have signed agreements-in-principle over the last four years, not a single final agreement has been ratified. 

According to current and former Indigenous leaders, the territorial government is largely to blame.

Now, on the eve of a territorial campaign, they're calling for a change of attitude in the N.W.T. government. Some leaders say it should take a step back — and they're pointing at MLAs and bureaucrats to make that change.

Gov't 'caused the most headaches': former premier

As premier from 2000 to 2003, Stephen Kakfwi oversaw negotiations for both the Sahtu Dene-Métis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement and the Tłı̨chǫ Land Claims and Self-Government Agreement.

"It was our government, it was my bureaucracy, my cabinet, that caused the most headaches and problems for everybody," he said.

It's kind of like, all of a sudden, they turn into Attila the Hun.- Stephen Kakfwi, former N.W.T. premier

Kakfwi said he often struggled with bureaucrats reluctant to cede control — a complaint echoed by other Indigenous leaders who spoke with CBC News.

"It's kind of like, all of a sudden, they turn into Attila the Hun," he said. "They don't want to give up any land for protection. They take this line — 'We've got to have oil and gas, we've got to have mining' — to the extreme."

'Easy to point to one party as the problem'

Fred Talen, director of negotiations with the territorial Department of Executive and Indigenous Affairs, said it's "a fairly common criticism" that the territorial government is impeding talks.

"It's easy to point to one party as the problem all the time," he said.

Talen, who has taken part in negotiations for about 15 years, said the federal government may come off as easier to deal with because most matters on the table — such as education, child protection and renewable resources — are under territorial jurisdiction.

"These are all matters that are the responsibility today, as set out in the Constitution of Canada, for provincial governments and territorial governments," he said.

But Indigenous leaders say that's part of the problem.

In 2014, the federal government fully devolved more powers — including crucial control over lands and resources — to the territorial government.

Gladys Norwegian, grand chief of the Dehcho First Nations, says she'd prefer that the N.W.T. government step away from the negotiating table. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Gladys Norwegian, grand chief of the Dehcho First Nations, says that since then, the territorial government has taken on a more active role in negotiations.

Now, she says, the territorial government's position is "more or less 'do as we say.'"

Candidates need new 'vision'

Norweigan says having Indigenous people in the legislative assembly and public service has not been enough to help push talks forward. 

"It appears that they become entrenched in the system and seem to be working against us rather than with us," she said.

Norwegian says current Premier Bob McLeod, who is from the Dehcho, seems to 'not fully understand what we're fighting for' in Dehcho First Nations land-claim negotiations. (Justin Tang/CP)

"A good example is the premier [Bob McLeod]. He is from the Dehcho yet he is the one that seemed to not fully understand what we're fighting for."

Norwegian says she'd prefer to see the territorial government leave negotiations to the federal government.

"We'd like them not to be at the table," she said.

Norwegian has questions for territorial election candidates: "What profound change are you going to make regarding negotiations? … And how involved are you going to be?"

Kakfwi's vision is much broader. He says the next assembly needs to envision a new kind of legislature that would bring regional Indigenous governments together in a "confederation."

"We need that option, to create a new government structure, and a new legislature," he said. "That's what I would push an MLA for. What's your vision?

"If you're just going to keep it running, we don't need you."