It still has hurdles to clear, but the agreement-in-principle reached last week on a native land claim by the Dene and Métis peoples of the Mackenzie River Valley was a major step forward. Since they began in 1981, negotiations with the federal government over the 450,000 square miles that the group claimed in the Northwest Territories have been marked by internal arguments among the natives and marathon bargaining sessions. Finally, on May 10, negotiators reached an agreement in Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister William McKnight’s office.
If ratified by the joint leadership of the Dene Nation and Métis Association of the Northwest Territories next month, the agreement would apparently give the 15,000 native people $370 million in 1985 dollars and full-surface and sub-surface ownership of 3,900 square miles. Details have not been made public, but native leaders told Maclean's that the Dene and Métis would also hold surface rights to 70,000 square miles of land. They would receive 10 per cent of federal royalties on mineral production and maintain hunting and trapping rights. As well, they would gain 50-percent representation on boards governing wildlife, land and water management.
Negotiators settled one of the most emotional issues in the final few weeks. Ottawa wanted the new deal to supersede two previous treaties, signed in 1899 and 1921. But the Dene and Métis resisted, partly because of their vague promises of political rights. In the end, the negotiators apparently compromised on allowing the Dene and Métis to pursue their political rights and keep certain treaty rights, but extinguished their treaty claims to land and hunting.
The compromise could present problems for native leaders trying to convince their communities that the agreement is in their interest. Said Stephen Kakfwi, the minister of aboriginal rights for the Territories and a former Dene president, “If the first question they’re asked is why the treaties were given up, they will be dead in the water.” If that happens, the historic agreement could suffer the same fate as a $190-million pact struck in 1984 with the neighboring Council of Yukon Indians. When band chiefs failed to ratify that agreement, it abruptly died.
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