Upcoming Forest Act source of tension with majority of Dene

Dene Nation is calling out the Government of the Northwest Territories for what it says was insufficient engagement in drafting the Forest Act.

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said the organization is “sending a signal to the GNWT that this Forest Act needs to be redone through a co-drafting partnership.”

According to Yakeleya, Grand Chiefs from across the territory indicated that the bill was “done already” before any Indigenous government had its say.

“(The government) is puffing their chest to say they consulted,” says Yakeleya. “Anybody can come to you and say what they’re planning to do. They’ll sit and listen but at the end of the day, they’re the ones that are going to write the legislation… We need more than consultation, we need engagement, active co-drafting. That’s when we know we’re comfortable with the bill.”

Not a problem of if, but when

According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ website, the upcoming Forest Act is to update outdated legislation.

“A new Forest Act,” it reads, “will provide an update to the current forest legislation by expanding the focus beyond the economic value of timber to a holistic view that allows for the sustainable use of forest resources.”

In an email, ENR said the bill was developed over two years of engagement with a “technical working group of Indigenous government and organizations” as well as input from non-governmental organizations, regulatory boards and industry.

The working group included all members from the Intergovernmental Council—Indigenous governments and groups that signed onto devolution—plus the North Slave Métis Alliance, Dehcho First Nations and Akaitcho Territorial Government.

The department added that there were multiple instances for the bill to be reviewed through the “drafting instructions” phase prior to an official draft of the bill.

However, a number of First Nations governments take issue with this part of the process and say despite the consultation, the draft didn’t reflect their concerns.

Not being heard

Dehcho Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian explained that this situation stems from devolution.

Since the Dehcho hasn’t signed onto devolution, “we’re being more or less brought in to be told that these decisions had been made,” she says. The region is then given the opportunity to provide feedback on what was decided.

In the case of the Forest Act, Norwegian said the she’s concerned about inherent rights and how the legislation may have “adverse effects because we haven’t settled the Dehcho process.”

“As much as we want to work together, GNWT is just not creating the climate where we feel like we’ve been heard.”

Not unanimous

In a news release, Dene Nation said the Dene were “unanimously” opposed to the proposed Forest Act.

However, the Tłı̨chǫ government responded and said it disagreed with that characterization.

In a news release of its own, it said it was “actively involved” in the bill’s development. It goes on to say that the Tłı̨chǫ Government has “serious concerns” about the draft, which it shared with the department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), and that it will work through the legislative process if those concerns aren’t addressed.

Possibility of being pulled

Dene Nation is ultimately calling on the Forest Act being pulled and re-drafted with proper engagement.

Asked about this possibility, ENR Minister Robert C. McLeod said his department will be introducing the bill in this session.

On Wednesday, he made good on that statement by giving notice that he intends to introduce the Forest Act on Friday.

What kind of message will that send to First Nations who are against the bill?

“We’ve dealt with a number of the Aboriginal governments and they’ve had some input into it,” said McLeod. “As far as what i would say to them, that’s a question you’d have to ask them.”

So we did.

Yakeleya had a simple response in the event that government passes the bill in its current form: “Stay tuned.”

Clarification (March 8, 2019): ENR took issue with a previous version of this story which said Indigenous governments couldn’t voice their concerns until a draft document was presented. This updated version clarifies that there were previous discussions to a draft bill, but that Indigenous governments didn’t feel like those discussions were reflected in the draft bill.

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