Bob McLeod: Presentation to the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples

Delivered on September 10, 2018

Check against delivery

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today on elements that you may want to consider in your report on new relationships between Canada and First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

The Government of the Northwest Territories can only be effective if it is responsive to the needs of our population, which is about fifty percent Indigenous as a whole. 

Like the current Government of Canada, we recognize the importance of continuing to work to improve these relationships, and to evolve the way Indigenous and public governments work together in the interest of our residents.

A majority of the 33 communities spread out over the territory have a majority Indigenous population, which may be Inuvialuit, Dene or First Nations, Métis or in many cases a combination of these peoples.

The Government of the Northwest Territories has evolved as a public government alongside the recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights in the NWT. The GNWT delivers programs and services equally to Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and communities, while recognizing the Inherent Right to self-government and supporting the negotiation of agreements to implement the land and self-government rights of Inuit, First Nations and Métis populations.

The conclusion of Indigenous land, resources and self-government agreements is a priority and has been one for some time.

Settled agreements in the territory currently include the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, the Sahtu Dene and Métis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, the Salt River First Nation Treaty Settlement Agreement, the Tłįchǫ Agreement, and the Délįnę Final Self-Government Agreement.

Additionally, there are currently over 14 active negotiations across the territory.

Self-government law-making powers are concurrent with those of the GNWT and extend to many social program areas such as income support, social housing, education, child and family services and early childhood education.

At this juncture, NWT self-governments, like many self-governments in Canada, have not yet exercised their social envelope jurisdictions.

The GNWT supports the implementation of self-government and is committed to working with Indigenous governments and Canada to support building capacity and the transition to self-government jurisdiction, authority and responsibility.

The GNWT is also committed to working with its treaty partners to find innovative approaches that meet the interests of those self-governments who seek a collaborative relationship with the GNWT on program and service delivery that does not necessarily include the exercise of jurisdiction.

We believe we have an understanding of the importance of doing this work well, and we think it is something the Government of Canada will consider carefully as it develops a framework around the recognition of rights.

In 2012, this government recognized that it was time to formalize our commitment to engage with Indigenous governments in the Northwest Territories, and we worked with them to develop ‘Respect, Recognition, Responsibility – the Government of the Northwest Territories Approach to Engaging with Aboriginal Governments’.

The document reinforces recognition of constitutionally protected Rights and the Inherent Right to Self-government, as well as Aboriginal Rights Agreements, which we believe is fundemental.

It also encourages mutually respectful relationships, and the creation of bilateral government to government relations that now exist with 9 Indigenous governments in the NWT.

Indigenous governments are defined through the GNWT Intergovernmental Relations policy, as those governments that have negotiated, or are in the process of negotiating, self-government agreements with the GNWT and the Government of Canada.

The 2014 Devolution Agreement is an example of our government to government relationship.  Indigenous governments were parties to negotiations and the devolution agreement and also signed a ground-breaking agreement that included extensive resource revenue sharing and participation in the Intergovernmental Council,  where public and Indigenous governments cooperate and collaborate on matters related to lands and resource management.

The Government of the Northwest Territories is also reflective of the Indigenous population directly – beyond our relationships with Indigenous governments.

More than half of our legislature is Dene, Métis or Inuit.  Our Cabinet is also representative. We work to ensure Indigenous people are hired by our government through priority hiring practices.

Through our integrated government system, language, culture and self-determination are acknowledged through programs and services that are delivered as efficiently as possible across mostly small, remote populations.

It’s important to note that our integrated system emphasizes the importance of Indigenous culture and tradition, though we constantly strive to improve in this area.

Examples include that our health and social services system has placed a new focus on funding programs that are based on the land. 

Our school systems have integrated cultural programs that are based on either the Dene or Inuvialuit traditions and that all students participate in regardless of background.

We have a traditional knowledge policy with significant obligations, particularly around environmental management actions and decisions.

We recognize and fund the support of 9 Indigenous languages.

The GNWT has committed to and 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.

This integrated system took time to build and deliver programs and services that reach all of the communities that need them, that meet national standards, that address reconciliation, that encourage a vital economy and allow diverse populations to thrive despite the challenges of remoteness and the intergenerational trauma that resulted from residential schools and other colonization.

This system means that there are only two Reserves in the Northwest Territories, and even those Reserves receive housing, education, health and social services and community services the same way as other communities. 

A challenge we have when the Government of Canada focuses its attention on Indigenous peoples is that funding is often focused on Reserves, so Indigenous communities in the North are not eligible. 

We do focus territorial funding on Indigenous peoples, but there is more work to be done, and a need for economic opportunities that can be fueled by projects that address our infrastructure deficit and help to diversify and strengthen our economy.

Our government sees value in the federally announced Principles respecting the Government of Canada’s Relationship with Indigenous Peoples as they reflect the spirit of our own commitment to working with Indigenous people and governments in the spirit of Respect, Recognition, and Responsibility.

However, we have some concerns about what the Principles and the expected Recognition of Rights Framework could mean for our public government. 

Working together, our main goal in the recognition and implemention of Indigenous rights to work together with Indigenous governments to ensure all residents, no matter where they live in the territory, continue to enjoy equal access to quality of programs and services.

It is important that policy direction around Indigenous governance and reconciliation has a consideration for the jurisdiction of the Government of the Northwest Territories, and the devolution of responsibilities most recently with respect to land and resources.

As I stated previously, finalization of negotiated land claim or self-government agreements is a high priority for our government.  It allows for communities and residents to move forward with self-determination and creates certainty that allows for economic development.

One of the challenges of the current federal engagement with Indigenous peoples is that it has created uncertainty and has slowed the process of negotiation. 

Whether or not it was intended, a lot of promises have been heard by Indigenous governments about new opportunities for broader negotiations without clear mandates.

Another challenge is that Indigenous governance models in the Northwest Territories often exist within regions or communities with mixed populations – some First Nations, some Métis as an example. 

We support self-government and the clarity it brings around funding, accountability and governance. It is critical that as Canada is moving forward with the important work of reconciliation, the federal government is mindful that the solutions identified must provide similar clarity and ensure quality services are available to all.

I don’t raise these issues to suggest that we don’t see the value in finding opportunities for Indigenous governments to be more engaged in government program delivery, but that the federal government could learn from us and should talk to us about the potential challenges that can arise.

Ensuring there is clear accountability confirmed with any changes in funding, planning for capacity and funding, and considering the impacts on all residents should be considered in any changes to service delivery.

I believe the Northwest Territories is an example of how real partnership with regional and community Indigenous governments based on mutual respect and recognition can lead to increased political self-determination and economic participation for the North’s Indigenous peoples.

Reconciliation is an ongoing process, but we think the Northwest Territories is well on its way and there are some lessons we can share.

I thank you very much for taking the time to listen to my presentation. I am happy to open the floor up for questions and discussions.