Bob McLeod: Presentation to Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs

Madame Chair, members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to present to you today in relation to your study of modern treaties and self-government throughout Canada.

The Government of the Northwest Territories has made it a priority to advance, finalize and implement land, resources and self-government agreements, including post-devolution initiatives.

We appreciate this opportunity to participate in your Committee’s study and hope that it will contribute to continued progress on this important initiative for the people of the Northwest Territories.

The Government of Canada has made strong statements about the importance of a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples and the contribution of colonial structures to the unacceptable socio-economic condition too many Indigenous people in Canada find themselves.

We strongly agree on the importance of Canada renewing relationships with Indigenous peoples. We also believe we have much to offer in terms of how to renew that relationship and support self determination.

We believe that constitutionally-protected agreements are the highest form of recognition of Aboriginal rights.

We also believe that final Indigenous rights agreements are the appropriate tool to codify those rights in the legal and constitutional framework of Canada.

The GNWT believes that the certainty provided by final rights and self-government agreements is central to the health of our communities, our economy, and our environment.

Our government has been committed to negotiating and implementing land, resources and self-government agreements in the Northwest Territories for over forty years.

Today, there are five settled land claims in our territory and two settled self-government agreements.

Our government works in partnership with these claimant groups on a government-to-government basis unlike those typically seen in southern Canada.

Our government-to-government approach is formally enshrined in our Intergovernmental Relations Policy and reiterated in Respect, Recognition, Responsibility, our approach to engaging with Indigenous governments, published in 2012.

Canada’s Principles have many similarities to Respect, Recognition and Responsibility including a formalized recognition of the Inherent Right to Self-government.

Our approach respects and incorporates the commitments made in settled claim agreements and is further supported by bilateral MOUs we have entered into with several Indigenous governments.

It is important to point out that our policy doesn’t just recognize those Indigenous governments with a settled claim. We also formally recognize as governments those Indigenous governments who are also currently in negotiations or have a right to negotiate.

In addition to the settled claims the GNWT is currently implementing, negotiations continue on three other regional claims and our government remains committed to seeing these claims finalized and implemented.

Settling these claims is a priority, and we continue to look for new ways to bring negotiations to a successful conclusion.

That commitment included the appointment of two Ministerial Special Representatives by myself and Minister Carolyn Bennett to look closely at claim processes in the Dehcho, Akaitcho and South Slave regions.

As a result of that work, we were able to table innovative new offers with the NWT Metis Nation and Akaitcho. The offers were designed to be as flexible as possible and allow Indigenous governments to choose how best to pursue their own priorities through the claim process.

Another innovation of the GNWT to support the settlement of claims is looking at the option of negotiating a generalized interest in resource development.

Generalized interest would allow Indigenous governments to receive a share of revenues from the development of resources on all lands in their region, not just on settlement lands.

Aboriginal rights and self-government agreements remove barriers to economic development, reduce legal ambiguities, and increase Indigenous self-sufficiency. These agreements clearly layout the responsibilities for public and Indigenous governments and define the modern relationship between them.

Our interest and priority, as a public government, is in ensuring that our residents have fair and equitable services, no matter where they live or what Indigenous government they may be a part of. 

One of the distinctive aspects of the Northwest Territories is the central role of Indigenous people in our society.

It is important to understand that the Government of the Northwest Territories has evolved alongside the negotiation of Aboriginal Rights Agreements. The vision that established the GNWT saw a future where the public government and Indigenous governments worked together to meet their respective priorities.

Ours government has always existed in the context of Indigenous rights and been deliberately shaped by a determination to respect and recognize those rights.

The GNWT supports self-determination of Indigenous people and Indigenous governments in the NWT and has developed as a public government with self-government in mind.

Our system of partnership and public governance in the Northwest Territories was designed to ensure that Indigenous views and priorities are reflected in public policy decisions and the design and delivery of public programs and services.

Indigenous people in the NWT participate in both public government and Indigenous government, in implementing regulatory frameworks, and in building capacity in communities. Twelve of the 19 Members of the Legislative Assembly today are Indigenous, including five of seven Cabinet Ministers.

Every Premier since division of the territories in 1999 has been Dene or Metis, including myself. Before division, only two non-Indigenous people have been Premier or government leader.

Settled claims have established new, unique institutions of public government that guarantee Indigenous governments’ rights to participate in decisions about land and resource development.

The Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act – passed as part of the implementation of settled claims in the NWT – provides that Indigenous governments have the authority to name members to the land and water boards that oversee decisions about land and resource development here.

I need to be clear that this does not mean Indigenous people have a right to be heard by decision makers, it means that – in the Northwest Territories – Indigenous people are the decision makers.

This unified approach unique to the Northwest Territories was not an accident, it was a deliberate choice to ensure that Indigenous rights are respected here in the territory they have called home for generations.

Indigenous governments across the NWT own economic development corporations, which are active players in important projects that contribute to our GDP. Close collaboration with Indigenous governments and corporations is one way the Government of the NWT is working toward reconciliation.

The Northwest Territories is in a more advanced place than many parts of the country in the area of settling claims and integrating programs and services for Indigenous residents.

Our system is integrated and considers the Indigenous perspective as part of delivery. The conclusion of Aboriginal land, resources and self-government agreements has remained a priority for the GNWT.

We are as eager as the federal government and Indigenous governments to move forward with negotiations and implementation of self-government. 

Canada has introduced several new approaches into negotiations. While on the face it, these approaches should encourage innovative negotiations and more meaningful agreements, we have significant concerns.

We understand the interest of all parties in advancing agreements.  However, we feel that a lack of clarity in Canada’s new approach is delaying, rather than advancing processes. 

Ambiguity around the newly released principles and other approaches that Canada seems to have discussed with Indigenous organizations, but that haven’t been explained to the Government of the Northwest Territories or other provincial or territorial governments.  This is creating confusion and perhaps raising unrealistic expectations.

For example, Canada is now open to wide-ranging interest-based discussions, blending the specific claim and comprehensive claim models, broadening negotiations beyond existing agreements, and may no longer seek certainty in agreements. These developments run the risk of:

  • Introducing delays into already lengthy processes as the parties assess new information
  • Returning some negotiations to “ground zero”
  • Wasting time and resources discussing things that are unlikely to be approved by any government
  • Introducing uncertainty about the mechanics of implementation
  • Removing the ability of all governments to rely on final agreements

It is my understanding that the new Principles have not been accompanied by changes to negotiating mandates, leaving parties to negotiations to try to guess at intents.

We are also concerned that Canada is in effect “changing the rules of the game” in the middle of the game.

Indigenous governments with finalized agreements made calculated choices under the existing policies and rules. Clarify is required as to whether Canada will re-open negotiations in areas with settled agreements. Inequity may be created by allowing for increased flexibility only for those who have not been able to achieve agreements in the past.

Starting in the 1960’s the federal government began transferring program responsibility from Canada to the GNWT. The most recent of these devolutions was the transfer of responsibilities for lands, water and resource management.

This last devolution was unique in that negotiations included not only Canada and the GNWT, but also Indigenous governments. All Indigenous governments were invited to the table, with most of them agreeing to participate.

Another unique feature of this last devolution was the creation of the Intergovernmental Council and the sharing of resource revenues.

Now, in addition to resource revenues included in settled rights agreements, the GNWT also shares 25% of the resource revenues from public lands with NWT Indigenous governments who signed the devolution agreement.

  • Aboriginal rights agreements affect every part of the way Indigenous and public governments administer the NWT:

  • the way we manage our lands,
  • the way we deliver social services,
  • the way we raise revenues, and
  • the way we govern our communities.

Reconciliation requires a national dialogue to ensure as a country we are moving forward together. The same is true of the NWT. This means both collective action and collaborative decision making about our future. We strongly urge Canada to support that national discussion and to not make these critical decisions without collaboration with your partners in provinces and territories.

Our framework for sharing resource revenues is intended to support Indigenous governments, including building capacity to take on program and service delivery. It too can serve as a model for the federal government when it looks to issues such as its own resource revenue sharing.

In summary, we are pleased with the overall direction that the Federal government is taking in terms of reconciliation. We are, however, concerned that Canada is forgetting the NWT when it is making national policy. Our current framework, a public government working in collaboration with future Indigenous self government, with clear processes for taking on authority and transitioning funding, is one that should be supported, not torn apart.

We will also continue to engage with the federal government, with provinces and territories and Indigenous governments as work around Indigenous relations in Canada evolves.

We will continue to work within our government to advance self-government and support Indigenous populations beyond negotiations as well.  The GNWT also continues to implement the relevant calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and support other efforts to address social and economic gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Northerners.

As Canada considers changes to financial relationships, it is important that the unique program and service delivery models of the Northwest Territories be considered and in our view, preserved.

Changes to the approach to new agreements creates many questions for our government about how they will fit into our existing governance structures.  This also creates a different kind of uncertainty for us.  Our first priority is to provide continuous service to all our residents, with changes to these services focusing  only on improvement.  We also want to make sure that existing work both at the territorial government and at the community level is not lost with change.