There was much fanfare when the GNWT introduced new legislation last month to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Premier Caroline Cochrane called it a “truly significant step towards reconciliation.”
But not everyone is on board just yet.
Late last year, before the legislation was introduced, members of the NWT’s Council of Leaders were presented with a Memorandum of Understanding supporting a “collaborative approach” to implementing UNDRIP. Signatories to that legislation include the Gwich’in Tribal Council and the Tłı̨chǫ Government.
There are six parties who have not signed on since December: Acho Dene Koe First Nation, Akaitcho Dene First Nation, Dehcho First Nations (DFN), Nahanni Butte Dene Band, Sahtu Secretariat Incorporated, and Salt River First Nation.
“It’s still up in the air for us,” says Herb Norwegian, the Dehcho Grand Chief.
Norwegian isn’t completely opposed to the UNDRIP legislation. But he says there are a number of things that need to be resolved before the DFN can sign on. These include the DFN’s relationship to devolution, which they have still not signed on to. Norwegian says the DFN and the federal and territorial governments will also need to sort out their long-standing self-government negotiations, which have been dragging on for more than two decades.
“So to sign something of that magnitude before we even start moving forward is something that I think we need to have a discussion on,” he says.
Ultimately, says Norwegian, any such agreement between the DFN and the GNWT will need to be implemented in the spirit of “joint decision-making and shared stewardship.”
Despite the DFN’s reservations, Norwegian says discussions with the territory have been positive. “They’re quite excited that we are trying to get negotiations back on track. We’ve indicated that there might be an interest with us coming on with devolution providing that the conditions are met.”
Among the signatories to the legislation is Gwich’in Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik, signing on behalf of the Gwich’in Tribal Council. He hopes the implementation of UNDRIP will offer economic benefits for his members. “First and foremost, the improvement of our social conditions, namely with housing, but also with other building materials, whether it’s gravel or access to lumber,” he says. “We’ve all seen what’s happened with the escalation and inflation of the cost of building supplies. “
He also hopes the legislation will be a step towards addressing climate change. But ultimately, he says, UNDRIP is a human rights tool, designed to prevent discrimination.
As for how the legislation will affect people on the ground, Kyikavichik points to his members’ reliance on medical travel. “When we have people going into regional or territorial hospitals, they’re often waiting in line while others, typically non-Indigenous people, are being seen before them. People on the ground have these experiences on a daily basis where they don’t feel respected, or they’re not feeling heard.”
The UNDRIP bill has passed first reading, to be reviewed again when sittings resume in May. The Standing Committee on Government Operations is also holding a series of public briefings on the bill across the territory next month. A complete list of locations and dates for those briefings is available here.