Land claims before territorial land-use policies: Dettah chief

Chief Edward Sangris of Dettah says the Government of the Northwest Territories is “putting the cart ahead of the horse” by bringing in new land management policies while Akaitcho treaty negotiations are still underway.

The Akaitcho Territory Government, which represents the communities of N’Dilo, Dettah, Deninu Kue (Fort Resolution) and Lutsel K’e, still hasn’t signed the most recent devolution agreement. This means they don’t recognize the GNWT’s right to manage formerly federal lands, said Sangris.

“I can see where (the GNWT) can do work with the Tlicho and Sahtu because they already signed the agreement with them, so they have to work. But that’s their issue. Our issue is we haven’t settled with Canada or the GNWT,” he said.

The land policy in question is a new recreational land lease framework announced by the GNWT on Oct. 21.

Devolution left the GNWT two separate land leasing policies: one for Commissioner’s Land, which has been managed by the GNWT for the past 45 years, and another for Territorial Land, handed over by the federal government in the spring. The framework, which will be developed over the next two years, is an attempt to align the two policies that control how recreational leases – which apply to everything from hunting cabins to campsites – are distributed.


“We view this framework as being able to run in parallel with the treaty process,” said Terry Hall, Director of Land Use Sustainability with the GNWT’s Department of Lands.  “It’s in no way intended to affect ongoing negotiations.” He added the new policy would be developed in consultation with Aboriginal governments across the territory.

Cart before the horse?

Even so, there’s the question of why the GNWT is developing land-use policy when it’s unclear exactly which lands will end up in territorial hands when the Akaitcho claims process wraps up.

A significant amount of land has been put aside for the Akaitcho pending a land claims settlement. This land is “withdrawn,” meaning the GNWT cannot issue leases on it, and the new leasing policies won’t apply to these areas.

Nonetheless, the withdrawn land only approximates what will be transferred to the Akaitcho in the final settlement. There’s a good chance the Akaitcho will get far less than what’s currently withdrawn – but there’s the possibility the GNWT is developing leasing policies for land destined to become the Akaitcho’s, said Sangris.

This is mainly the case for site-specific policies, like the one being considered along the Ingraham Trail because of the large number of recreational leases and squatters in the area.

“I can see another scenario where they go ahead and then they back track,” said Sangris. “It’s getting to a point where it’s cumbersome for us as a region trying to navigate through our negotiations, and all of these things coming out without any full meaningful discussion.”

Getting rid of squatters

Sangris said he’s doubtful meaningful consultation will occur. He also worries the GNWT’s emphasis on getting rid of squatters as they roll out the new land policy will negatively impact Akaitcho land users.

There’s clearly a need for better enforcement, he said: “when our members go out trapping, they come back and say, ‘I couldn’t go out trapping because somebody built a house.’ And those squatters don’t have authorization. It’s come to a point where somebody has to control those things.”

“But because of this land freeze, we have with the federal government and the GNWT, there’s no land use planning in place, so government just assumes Yellowknives Dene are not supposed to be there. But this is their land. They can put the cabin anywhere they want,” said Sangris.

From a legal standpoint, this isn’t technically true, said Annette Hopkins, Assistant Deputy Minister of Operations in the Lands Department.

“Until the land claim is settled, we recognize their right to exercise their treaty rights,” she said. But if an Akaitcho person wants to “go above the threshold of land use regulations,” and build a cabin, for example, they still need GNWT approval.

This isn’t the case in some areas with settled land claims like the Sahtu or Tlicho regions, where members can establish hunting and fishing camps without requiring a land lease. The lack of that guarantee has Sangris apprehensive that Akaitcho land use won’t be respected.

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