Elections Bring Optimism For Dehcho’s Stalled Land Claim

Everybody comes to the Dehcho: Tom Berger, Herb Norwegian and David Suzuki in a still from the 2004 documentary Ghosts of Futures Past | Courtesy Elanfilms

After over 20 years of negotiations, the Dehcho land claim process has seen its fair share of federal and territorial governments come and go.

But with the end of nearly a decade of Conservative reign in Canada secured last week by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, Dehcho First Nations (DFN) Grand Chief Herb Norwegian is allowing himself to feel a sense of optimism moving forward.

“It’s exciting,” he said, “and we’re now hoping that we’ll be able to start moving forward in some giant steps.”

The Dehcho Process has been at a standstill for over a year over the issue of land quantum, or the amount of land, surface and subsurface rights to be set aside for DFN.

After slowing the talks for the devolution of lands, water and resources to the territorial government, NWT officials joined the negotiations in mid-2014. Within months, the GNWT provided its first and final offer, based on calculations made during the original Dene-Metis claim negotiations in the late 1980s.

Since then, the negotiations have become more of a political showdown, with Dehcho leaders and elders even marching on the capital last spring to gain support in the legislature. But after further talks saw no budging from either side, the last few months have been dedicated to getting things organized internally for the coming of a new government and, hopefully, a fresh start, Norwegian said.

Waiting and seeing

“It’s a matter of waiting for the new territorial government and then we’ll see what happens,” he said. “For us, the land quantum is a big one, and what was offered to us is totally ludicrous, so we’ve dug in our heels and want them to reexamine their position. We’re hoping a new group of people that get elected will be able to do that.

“There are always these little log jams that happen, but we’re trying to be as open and positive about it as possible.”

With what looks like seven candidates vying for the Nahendeh seat so far, Norwegian said the DFN office in Fort Simpson has become a hotspot for MLA hopefuls looking to see what they can do to speed up the negotiations in the 18th Assembly.

“Every candidate, including the recent federal candidates, have dropped by, and the big interest is where the Dehcho is at and what they can do to help,” Norwegian said.

While DFN doesn’t formally endorse candidates, the grand chief said the Dehcho Process continues to be a top priority for constituents in both electoral districts, and could be a deciding factor in the Nov. 23 election.

“Any candidate that can actually take that issue and bring it to the forefront has a good chance of winning,” Norwegian said. “So we are trying to make sure they have the right information and are delivering an accurate and correct punch when talking about the Dehcho Process.”

Even outside of the Dehcho region, Norwegian said candidates should have a strong understanding of the unsettled land claims in the territory and consider them a priority.

“We are a corridor area and there needs to be clarity here and resolution,” he said. “In order to do justice, the candidates in Yellowknife need to add to the Dehcho issue because it’s about the administration of the land up the valley here. People need to understand what it means to have that uncertainty.”

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