Dene First Nations slam Ottawa over land and resource negotiations

After nearly two decades of negotiations, the Dene of northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba were close to signing a land and resource agreement with the federal government - until the deal suddenly fell through.

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations says concerns raised by other Indigenous groups about the negotiations

A delegation of five Dene First Nations from northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba held a public demonstration on Wednesday in Ottawa. (Athabasca Denesuline Final Agreement - North of 60 Facebook page/Supplied)

Leaders from five Dene First Nations in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan are slamming the federal government for suddenly backing away from a land and resource deal after concerns were raised with Indigenous groups in the Northwest Territories.

"Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Bennett, you have betrayed us," said Ron Robillard, chief negotiator at Athabasca Denesuline Nation in Saskatchewan.

"You are not honourable and you are not true to your words."

The leaders want the federal government to recognize their lands and rights north of the 60th parallel in an area known as Nuhenéné, where they say they have hunted and harvested for thousands of years. The deal they've been pursuing with Ottawa has come to be known as the North of 60 Agreement.

Email halting negotiations came at 11th hour

After 18 years of negotiations, the leaders said they believed an agreement was imminent. 

They travelled to Yellowknife last Wednesday to initial the maps to recognize traditional territory in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

But at the last minute, they say they received an email from the federal government telling them Ottawa is not prepared to initial the maps until further notice.

"As a Dene person, to be in a position where I was starting to trust the government was a very special thing," Robillard said.

"I was very shocked."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on June 19, 2019 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The leaders received a letter from Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett, saying her commitment to initialling the maps had been deferred until further notice without explanation.

They say Bennett's comments were followed up by an email from the chief negotiator, saying all scheduled negotiation meetings had been cancelled until further notice.

"I feel the government is saying that we're not people," said Louie Mercredi, Chief of Fond Du Lac Denesuline First Nation.

"I urge Minister Bennett to do the right thing, to reverse her decision, to initial the agreement and let us proceed with the ratification. Anything less is dishonourable."

'An egregious act of bad faith'

Niki Ashton, NDP MP for Churchill—Keewatinook Aski, raised the matter in question period the day after.

"This is an egregious act of bad faith," Ashton said. "It sets the Dene communities back for years and it is the opposite of reconciliation, so what will the minster do to fix this major problem?"

Bennett defended her decision.

"There have been discussions and concerns raised by Indigenous Peoples in the Northwest Territories," Bennett said. "Until I feel that those consultations are met to my satisfaction, we will have to delay the initialling of that agreement."

North of 60 comes up in Question Period

3 years ago
Duration 1:17
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question by Saskatchewan NDP MP Georgina Jolibois about why the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations cut off land and resource negotiations with the Athabasca Denesuline.

Mercredi and Robillard joined a delegation of Denesuline from Black Lake First Nation, Fond du Lac First Nation, Hatchet Lake First Nation, Northlands Denesuline First Nation and Sayisi Dene First Nation, who came to Ottawa on Wednesday to hold a public demonstration outside of the prime minister's office.

The delegation did not get a meeting with Bennett or Prime Minister Trudeau, but Georgina Jolibois, NDP MP of  Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, brought it up in question period in the Commons today.

"Meaningful reconciliation is about working with Indigenous people and meeting in good faith," said Georgina Jolibois of  Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River.

"Will the minister meet with the Dene while they're in Ottawa and explain why she broke her promise face-to-face?"

PM defends consultations

Trudeau responded by acknowledging concerns have been raised by Indigenous groups in the Northwest Territories about the terms of the agreement, and their impact on their communities and rights

"No relationship is more important to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples," Trudeau said.

"We have a responsibility to meaningfully consult with communities in order to understand, work through the issues that they have brought forward."

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Garry Bailey, president of the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, told CBC News that some in the region worry about the management of hunting resources and fear the Athabasca Denesuline are trying to fast-track the negotiation process.

The Dene acknowledge concerns are being raised by Indigenous groups in the Northwest Territories, but they say this shouldn't end negotiations.

"I have to go back and tell my people we have been betrayed," Robillard said.

"When you take away a community's hope, you take away apart of their future and you destroy some of the past."

Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated urging feds to reconsider

The federal government's decision to freeze discussions also surprised Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI), which speaks for Inuit in Nunavut.

A spokesperson for NTI says it was close to finalizing a mutually beneficial agreement with the Dene regarding the Nunavut portion claim.

NTI is not part of negotiations with the Northwest Territories and does not believe concerns raised by Indigenous groups in that territory should be an excuse to halt deliberations in Nunavut, according to a spokesperson for the organization.

Leaders of Dene First Nations want the federal government to recognize their lands and rights north of the 60th parallel in an area known as Nuhenéné. (Athabasca Denesuline Final Agreement - North of 60 Facebook page/Supplied)

"NTI was not consulted, was not told that there was a problem, and was not given any advance notice," a spokesperson wrote.

"The Government of Canada has now upset the table. This does not respect NTI's role as a party to the negotiations. This does not fit the honour of the Crown. The Government of Canada should reconsider its position."

Agreement includes financial component, harvesting rights

Expectations for an agreement were high, according to the Dene leaders. 

If the agreement is passed into law, the Dene would enter into a new modern treaty, establish a traditional Athabasca settlement area, get financial compensation from the federal government and a recognition of harvesting rights. 

If someone tried to take their land, they would be notified and consulted before anything happened. 

In the '70s and '80s, Canada negotiated comprehensive land claim agreements with other Indigenous groups, but not with the Athabasca Denesuline.

The federal government has said "it was determined" that the Athabasca Denesuline had no legal rights north of 60 in the Northwest Territories and what later became Nunavut.

The Dene say they are worried that tourist camps will be established in the region and parcels of land given to other groups. 

"For thousands of years, way before Canada even existed, before the borders were put in, we called Nuhenéné our land," Mercredi said.

"It is strange to negotiate for something that's been ours for so many years."

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Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.