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Landmark agreement inked

Lynn Lau
Northern News Services

Inuvik (Oct 08/01) - Negotiators initialed a 107-page landmark agreement in an Inuvik boardroom Wednesday, moving the Beaufort Delta region one step closer to self-government.

The document, called an Agreement-in-Principal, represents five years of work and a unique partnership between the Inuvialuit and Gwich'in, who are pursuing self-government together.

The agreement defines the shape of new government powers and institutions, and their relationship with the territorial and federal governments. The document will provide direction for the parties to reach a final agreement, expected to be another three or four years off.

Under the agreement, new government bodies will be formed, which would include an Inuvialuit government, Gwich'in government, Beaufort Delta regional government, and smaller community governments to replace existing hamlet or town councils.

The Inuvialuit and Gwich'in governments will represent their own respective groups, but in the community governments, half the council seats will be for general members elected by both non-aboriginal and aboriginal residents. Non-aboriginals will also be able to vote for the chief councillor of the regional government.

The new governments will deliver programs and services, and have the lawmaking powers in wide range of jurisdictions, including child and family services, education, health, municipal affairs and justice.

A unique feature of the agreement allows for a review of the new system after it has been set up.

"Government changes all the time, so we were kind of concerned about locking in the inherent rights of Gwich'in and Inuvialuit into one system," said Bob Simpson, chief negotiator for the aboriginal groups. "It's not all about exercising power and spending money. It's about how you govern and serve people better."

Money matters will likely dominate the next phase of the talks as taxation and resource sharing have yet to be worked out. The aboriginal groups want to be able to collect taxes and royalties -- something the federal government was not willing to discuss at this stage.

Simpson said the agreement is good for the aboriginal groups, but they had to make a concession in the area of justice. The Inuvialuit and Gwich'in had been pressing for their own court system, but they had to agree instead to work under the existing court system.

Vince Teddy, the Inuvialuit negotiator, said he was pleased with the final result, although the talks took two years longer than expected.

"It's a major step for us," he said. "It's a major decision by both (aboriginal) parties to work together and not only restore aboriginal self-government, but also to work within the public system. A lot of work has to be done yet, but so far, we're satisfied with what's in the agreement ... for all residents of the Beaufort Delta."

The document now goes to the sponsoring institutions -- the federal and territorial governments, Inuvialuit Regional Corp., and Gwich'in Tribal Council -- for approval.

All the approvals are expected to be in place by next month.

A short plain-language summary of the document has been prepared, and field workers are currently going door-to-door to explain the contents of the agreement to the public.

Simpson says his office will be setting up regular workshops in the communities over the next three to four years to help people prepare for self-government.