'I'm feeling a sigh of relief': Caribou tags charge against Ted Tsetta stayed

The attorney general of the Northwest Territories stayed court proceedings against a former chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, charged with hunting caribou without tags.

Former Yellowknives Dene chief charged with illegally possessing caribou in February 2014

Ted Tsetta and Bill Erasmus are shown outside the Yellowknife courthouse June 28, 2016. The charge against Ted Tsetta has been stayed and he has entered a diversionary agreement. (CBC)

The attorney general of the Northwest Territories stayed court proceedings against a former chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation charged with hunting caribou without tags.

Ted Tsetta had been charged under the territory's Wildlife Act in February 2014. Since then, he'd been in court more than 20 times as he fought the case.

Tsetta signed a diversion agreement, and the charge against him is stayed, according to court documents. A diversion agreement is generally an agreement between the accused and prosecution that is an alternative to prosecution in court. 

"I'm feeling a sigh of relief, never lose hope. [I was] always thinking positive," Tsetta said. "I had no choice, I wasn't going to let my people down, I wasn't going to let the future generation down."

This decision marks the end of a lengthy court process for Tsetta. He filed a Constitutional notice and had the support of the Dene Nation over the course of the proceedings.

"I stuck with my gut instinct," he said. "We have inherent treaty rights to the land and the wildlife on it."

Dene Nation Chief Bill Erasmus called this outcome a "victory" for Tsetta and the Dene Nation as a whole.  

"He was exercising his Aboriginal and treaty rights which are inherent," Erasmus said. "Those rights don't come from Canada and they've come to a mutual understanding on staying the charges."    

"The people here are caribou people … they've been given the guarantee and the assurance through the treaty process forever," Erasmus said.   

Specifics of the diversion agreement have not been made public, but there is no finding of guilt for Tsetta, explained Roger Shepard, the counsel for the attorney general.

"It took some time to have the necessary discussions to ensure that diversion was something that was appropriate in the circumstances," Shepard said in an email.

"We were of the opinion that diversion was an appropriate option. Mr Tsetta was of the same view and a mutually satisfactory resolution was agreed upon by both parties."

According to the N.W.T. Wildlife Act, Indigenous people with treaty rights to harvest may do so without a permit, though there are certain wildlife zones that require all hunters — including Aboriginal hunters with treaty rights — to have tags to harvest or possess certain wildlife in those areas, Shepard said. 

Tsetta had been charged under a previous version of the act.