It was an event that many northerners feared would never take place. But as Dene drummers beat out their prayer songs in a smoke-filled gymnasium in Yellowknife, N.W.T., last week, leaders of the 13,000 Dene and Métis of the Mackenzie Valley lined up with representatives of the Northwest Territories government and Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister Thomas Siddon to sign a massive land-claim agreement. With that, they ended 13 years of costly and often fractious negotiations. The signing took place just 10 days after Siddon reached a
similar deal with the 7,000-member Yukon Council of Indians, and three weeks before Ottawa and leaders of the 17,000 Inuit in the central and eastern Arctic are scheduled to sign an agreement-in-principle on the largest land claim in Canadian history. For many northerners, the Yellowknife ceremony clearly signalled what they hoped would be a turning point in their political and economic fortunes.
Together, the three native groups will assume outright ownership of a total of 220,000 square miles—an area roughly the size of the three Maritime provinces—and a strong measure of control over much larger tracts. While Canadian laws will still apply on all the land, the Dene and Métis settlement, for one, gives the natives surface rights and exclusive control over development on 70,000 square miles—an area that includes several existing communities. They will also share with governments the
management of an area five times as large. Declared Dene Nation president William Erasmus: “We are guaranteeing a future for our people.” But, at the same time, natives in other parts of the country were locked in a new round of legal battles over what they viewed as their rightful claim to vast tracts of Canada.
In Smithers, B.C., the provincial Supreme Court continued to hear final arguments last week in the longest and most costly land-claims trial in Canadian history: the Gitksan Wet’suwet’en tribal council’s claim on behalf of 7,000 natives to a vast expanse in the prov-
ince’s northwest. In Toronto, a Federal Court judge denied an application by lawyers representing 1,400 Innu of Labrador to stop lowlevel NATO training flights. And in Montreal, an earlier land-claim agreement is also facing a challenge.
In that case, representatives of the 11,000 Cree of northern Quebec sought an injunction from the province’s Superior Court to overturn the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, Canada’s first modem land-claim settlement. If the court agrees with the Cree contention that the accord should be cancelled because the federal and provincial governments have failed to live up to its terms, that could postpone a $7.5-billion expansion of the James Bay hydro project that Hydro-Québec plans to begin this fall.
The court challenges illustrate the difficulties that have dogged the land disputes. With
such emotionally charged issues as native selfgovernment at stake, negotiations between Ottawa and the native groups involved in the three northern settlements have been slow and costly. The Yukon Indians, for example, have spent $45 million to settle the claim that they launched in 1973. The Indians—whose average annual income is about $12,000—borrowed the money from the federal government and now will have to pay it back out of the $232 million in cash compensation they expect to receive. To the same end, the Dene and Métis have already borrowed $38 million against the $500 million that they are promised in their claim settlement.
But the agreements also promise to open up new economic opportunities. One project that could benefit the North is a proposed pipeline to carry natural gas from the resource-rich Beaufort Sea region through the Mackenzie Valley to southern markets. A federal inquiry concluded in the mid-1970s that the pipeline should not proceed until native land claims were dealt with. Now, Kent Jespersen, president of the Calgarybased Foothills Pipe Lines (Yukon) Ltd., says that the Dene and Métis settlement should help pave the way for construction of the $5-biIlion pipeline by the late 1990s. Said Jespersen, whose company has an application before the National Energy Board to build a Mackenzie Valley pipeline: “The agreement clears up some uncertainty and allows for a good working relationship so that the project is acceptable to all northerners.”
But just as the settlements in the North breathed new life into that energy megaproject, the Quebec dispute threatened to upset another. When the James Bay Cree filed an application for an injunction in Montreal on April 4, it was simply the latest chapter in a dispute that has been in and out of the courts since 1973. Then, the Cree and Inuit of northern Quebec sought an injunction to stop the first, $ 12-billion phase of the James Bay development, arguing that the huge hydro dams would violate their traditional rights over nearly two-thirds of Quebec. The Cree lost that court battle and in November, 1975, with the giant development nearing completion, reached a settlement with the governments of Quebec and Canada. Under that agreement, the Cree and Inuit received $225 million in cash, outright ownership of 5,345 square miles of land—twice the size of Prince Edward Island—and hunting, fishing and trapping rights throughout their traditional living areas. In return, they dropped their court action and surrendered what the accord described as “native claims, rights,
titles and interests” in the disputed lands.
At the same time, the two governments agreed to provide a wide range of benefits, including new airports, schools and housing. Cree spokesmen now claim that Ottawa, in particular, failed to live up to its undertakings and that both levels of government have breached the original agreement. As a result, the Cree are asking the courts to declare the settlement invalid—an action that would throw the land-ownership issue back into dispute and stall any additional development. But even if the courts uphold the agreement, Cree leaders say they will continue to resist the James Bay expansion. Declared Grand Chief Matthew Coon-Come: “We would be traitors to our ancestors if we didn’t oppose the project.”
For their part, federal officials say that they have lived up to about 90 per cent of their original commitments, spending more than $1 billion on capital projects in the James Bay region since 1975. They add that they are prepared to fulfil the rest of Ottawa’s promises to the Cree. The government also maintains that the Cree gave qualified approval to the proposed expansion project when they signed the original agreement—a position Cree leaders flatly reject.
At the same time, another native court challenge is drawing to a close in Western Canada. That suit was launched in 1984 when 54 hereditary Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en elders claimed that they were the rightful owners of about 25,000 square miles of spectacular woodlands, lakes and mountains in northwestern British Columbia. The case has already produced one unexpected ruling: provincial Chief Justice Allan McEachern allowed Indian elders to recount oral history—stories passed from one generation to the next—to help establish that their ancestors had managed the resources of the region for at least 5,000 years.
The trial, which opened in May, 1987, has since consumed 323 court days, heard from more than 100 witnesses and examined more than 10,000 documents. By the time the trial concludes, probably in June, it will have cost an estimated $25 million—including the fees for lawyers representing the Indians
and provincial and federal governments.
The size of the financial commitment reflects the stakes at issue. Most B.C. Indians were never offered treaties or cash to surrender their lands, and West Coast bands have launched about 20 land claims—which the province has refused to negotiate. Now, University of Victoria history professor Kenneth Coates, for one, predicts that a court victory by the Gitksan Wet’suwet’en would lead to “a very rapid spate of native injunctions placed on almost every development project in British Columbia.” If the court rules against them,
however, that could end most hopes for aboriginal land claims in the province. Said Coates: “It may very well be their last cannon shot.” Labrador’s Innu, meanwhile, asked the courts to settle their long-standing complaint against the use of the region for military training. During three days of hearings early this month, the Naskapi-Montagnais Innu Association asked the Federal Court to stop lowlevel jet training flights over Labrador until the defence department completes a review of their environmental effects. The Innu claim ^ that the loud engine noise of low-flying fighter g jets frightens caribou herds and endangers their own existence. But Judge Barbara Reed g ruled that it would be “inappropriate” to stop Ü the flights because that would result in “extenö sive prejudice and harm to the civilian commu“ nities of Happy Valley and Goose Bay, as well as to the military personnel and their families.” Whatever the outcome of the other court cases, historian Coates views the northern land-claim settlements as a major breakthrough for Canadian natives. “What we are seeing is truly revolutionary,” said Coates. “It is providing native people with the control and influence they need to chart a long-term future for themselves. That is something our culture has not provided to aboriginal people since the time of first contact.” But it remains to be seen how far and how fast those rights will be extended to native people across the country.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.