For almost 30 years, the Gwich’in Tribal Council has negotiated a self-government agreement with the federal and territorial governments.
The Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, signed in April 1992, was touted as a necessary first step at the time in restoring Gwich’in control over their lands. It sets out a framework for eventual self-government with the goal of “enabling the Gwich’in to conduct their affairs and administer resources, programs and services as the Gwich’in situation requires.”
Almost three decades later, the process is far from over.
Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik estimated that a final self-government agreement would be at least five years away.
“To tell you the truth, we didn’t think self-government would last that long with the negotiation process when we signed the land claim in 1992,” he told Cabin Radio.
“We often thought at the time that self-government would follow in the decade and unfortunately that never materialized. A lot has happened in the 24 years since we started trading – a lot of stops and starts and I know the frustration at times.
A successful self-government agreement for the Gwich’in would see both the federal and territorial governments give the Gwich’in the authority to deliver programs and services, as well as the ability to create and implement laws.
Other Aboriginal communities and regions in the Northwest Territories are pursuing similar agreements.
The Tłı̨chǫ government and the Sahtu community of Délı̨nę both have self-government agreements. Ongoing negotiations include the Inuvialuit, Dehcho First Nations, Métis Nation of the Northwest Territories, and Sahtu Dene and Métis of Colville Lake, among others.
The JWG is now making an effort to advance self-government, according to Kyikavichik.
Negotiators strive to update a tentative agreement that outlines a timeline, framework and goals for a final agreement. The draft document will be presented to the CTG’s Annual General Meeting in Inuvik in August, where Gwich’in citizens can provide comments.
Kyikavichik has made a habit of frequently updating JWG members on Facebook, describing what he is looking for in negotiations and what self-government means to the Gwich’in people.
He said the goal is to help citizens better understand the process and its complexities so that they can share their thoughts and concerns.
“Ultimately they will have to ratify a deal with the Gwich’in government,” Kyikavichik said, “and critical to this process will be a solid understanding of what that can mean, what the impacts are and how things will change. . .
“At the end of the day, we can do all of this great work by negotiating a deal. However, if our people are not behind and support it… then we are not much further ahead than we are today.
What are the T & Cs looking for?
The GTC pursues a regional model of self-government.
Three of the four Gwich’in communities – Aklavik, Tsiigehtchic and Tetlit Zheh (Fort McPherson) – are represented by the GTC in the negotiations.
Nihtat Gwich’in Council in Inuvik has been seeking a separate self-government agreement since 2018, although it remains on the JWG board of directors.
There are seven areas that the JWG has identified as “priority jurisdictions”. These are governance, fiscal relations, housing, land use planning, culture and heritage, economic development and taxation.
Kyikavichik said the hope is to assume authority over these jurisdictions over the next five years.
“Priorities are really what’s important to the Gwich’in,” he explained. “The reason we are seeking a deal on Gwich’in government is to restore our historic methods of government.
“It comes through clear leadership lines at the community level, involving our youth and elders in decision-making, but also understanding that we don’t want government unless it has the funding to do it. to be able to support it. “
Other areas such as health, social services and justice will follow over the next 20 years, Kyikavichik envisages.
Bands and DGO exploded
Along with identifying priority jurisdictions, a key discussion was to determine what sovereign self-government would look like at regional and local levels.
While the Gwich’in Tribal Council is responsible for administering the rights and benefits set out in the land claim at the regional level, the agreement establishes “Designated Gwich’in Organizations” – or DGO, for short – in each of the four Gwich’in in communities to do it locally.
The four DGOs are the Nihtat Gwich’in Council in Inuvik, the Tetlit Gwich’in Council in Fort McPherson, the Gwichya Gwich’in Council in Tsiigehtchic and the Ehdiitat Gwich’in Council in Aklavik.
These organizations are distinct from band councils, which administer the rights and benefits accorded to members under the Indian Act as opposed to land claim – although in Aklavik and Tsiigehtchic, DGOs and band councils do not. one.
“In fact, the organizations were cauterized between designated Gwich’in organizations and Indian Act band councils for the most part,” Kyikavichik explained. “In our larger communities, they are separate organizations, and sometimes the mandates can be different.
“However, the reality is that whether you are a band council or a designated Gwich’in organization, the rights and interests of our people should come first. The plan is to eventually merge the band council and the designated Gwich’in organization into a single community government.
“To do this, we need the active participation of chiefs and band councils, and we have work to do in this regard. “
Community or regional autonomy?
In Inuvik, the Nihtat Gwich’in Council and the Inuvik Native Band are two separate organizations that each serve the city’s Gwich’in. The two have been working together since 2018 to pursue their own self-government agreement.
Chief Robert Charlie-Tetlichi of the Inuvik Indigenous Band said leaders at the time believed the process could work best at the community level.
“Between the Nihtat Gwich’in and the Band, we may be able to come to a self-government agreement sooner rather than going for a regional process,” he said.
The Nihat Gwich’in board has undergone a leadership change, with new chairman Kelly McLeod being elected to the post in March.
Now, McLeod said, the board is “reassessing” where it is in the process and how to proceed. A board meeting in Inuvik was held on Saturday to brief members and discuss whether to pursue their own deal or join the regional deal.
Charlie-Tetlichi said he would like to see the band and council stick together to the community model, but the decision ultimately is “for the members to determine how we move forward.”
“If Nihtat joins the regional process, then the group will also have to meet with its members to see how they want to proceed,” he said.
“We see nothing”
Nihtat Gwich’in Council and the Inuvik Native Band are not alone in reconsidering the regional model.
Fort McPherson is currently one of three communities included in the GTC negotiations. However, Chief Wanda Pascal of the Teetl’it Gwich’in Band Council told Cabin Radio that she plans to call a band meeting next week to reconsider whether to step down.
“This is what we wanted from the start,” Pascal said. “There’s just a small group of people who didn’t like it, but… it’s not mine or my board – it’s the community. I really think I should go back to the community and ask them.
Pascal said the move was prompted by growing frustration within the group – which is separate from Tetlit Gwich’in Council, the designated local organization of the Gwich’in – over a perceived lack of collaboration and financial support from the group. of the GTC.
“The funding that goes to Tribal, they don’t help us at all,” she said. “We don’t see anything. It’s really hard to work with people who don’t want to work together.
“I don’t know how we’re going to work as a regional government if they can’t even work as partners now. It is really frustrating.
Pascal said that she and band representatives would like to go to the AGM in Inuvik in August to discuss these issues, but that they will need to be invited by the CTG.
Cabin Radio has attempted to contact all of the Gwich’in chiefs. Chief Danny Greenland in Aklavik declined an interview request, while Chief Phillip Blake in Tsiigehtchic could not be reached.
Kyikavichik acknowledged that one of the greatest challenges facing the Gwich’in self-government process is the lack of unity.
However, he is committed to working so that each of the communities – including those that go it alone – is once again on the same page.
“One of the things I ran on was to bring our communities together again,” he said. “I have always believed that the four groups and communities are the strongest when we work together.
“I continue to see what we can do to get back to our original intention with the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, which called for four communities to work together for the benefit of all Gwich’in.
“It will certainly be a challenge for the future. “